D-Day: Boys to Men

When I lived in Europe, there were a lot of places I wanted to go.  However, there was only one place I had to see before  I left that continent –the D-Day beaches in Normandy. So when my son and I decided to visit France, there was no way I would NOT go there.

Stephen Ambrose called D-Day the pivotal event of the 2oth century. I couldn’t agree more. As Ambrose also noted, this battle decided whether or not the world was going to be Nazi or democratic.  If our soldiers had been thrown back into the seas, it would have been catastrophic.

When we got to Omaha Beach, I went to the surf and tried to imagine what it would be like to cross that beach under fire.  I couldn’t do so. I am not alone in that experience. Tom Hanks, the star of “Saving Private Ryan”, the best movie ever made on this conflict, said that he could imagine how the scene looked, but not how it felt to the soldiers.

When I was on the beach, I was surpised at how much of an incline those soldiers had to deal with.  Not only dead they have to cross that beach under heavy fire, they had to do it going uphill.

While I couldn’t feel what the soldiers felt, I did feel something: great admiration for those men.  Most of them weren’t even adults, really, but they were courageous. 

Our soldiers landing on the beaches of Normandy were just kids

“Saving Private Ryan” depicts American soldiers hitting a beach thrown into chaos by explosions, fire, smoke, screaming, dead and wounded soldiers and flying lead.  The film shows it wasn’t safe anywhere on that beach.

One of the soldiers asked his officer, “Where is the rallying point?”  His answer was,”Anywhere but here”.  The only way to live was to get off that beach, which our soldiers bravely did.

Omaha Beach wasn’t the only place where our troops exhibited courage on D-Day. Near Omaha Beach is Point du Hoc. It is a cliff 4 miles west of the beach. 

I recall how amazed I was that young men actually scaled that cliff under heavy gunfire and captured it.  Is it any wonder that Ronald Reagan immortalized them there in a speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day:

Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air singed with your honor.”

Our boys had to scale these cliffs in combat

There were some brave German soldiers on D-Day, too. Our guide took us to a location down the beach which was more rough, and strewn with places where gun emplacements once stood.  In one of those places, he told us one German soldier held off Americans for several hours.

A German soldier held off Americans in terrain like this

That visit to Omaha Beach was one of the most significant events of my life.  It brought the events of D-Day to life for me.  Still, it was now only a historical battlefield.  It was somewhat similar to the tours of Civil War battlefields I have made. 
What made this visit different was that, somehow, when I was a boy, it was not so ancient history. My father’ generation had fought there and it was real. When I visited only a few years ago I could capture in my heart some of that reality.
I can’t bring myself to watch fictional movies about the events of September 11, 2001. The memories of that day are still to real and raw for me.  Maybe one day I will be able to watch “Flight 93” and “World Trade Center” with the same historical eye I could view “Saving Private Ryan”, but not now.
How I feel about September 11 must be how the vets of D-Day felt about June 6, 1944.  I bet a lot of time had to pass before they could bring themselves to think about D-Day without experiencing terrible emotions. Perhaps they never could.
In the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan’, the now old man who was “saved” by others went to visit the Normandy grave of the officer who led the rescue.  He had been told to “earn this” by the officer, and he knelt at his grave, weeping, hoping that his efforts had been good enough.
Ronald Reagan asked the  “boys of Point du Hoc” a rhetorical question: “Why did you do it?”.  He answered the question for them: “You all knew some things were worth dying for?” Reagan closed his speech by exhorting his audience to show these men that they understand what they did for by their actions.
Ronald Reagan was right. Some things are worth fighting and dying for.  The Americans fighting on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 taught us a lot in that respect.
Each of us should look into our hearts on June 6, 2010 and figure out for  ourselves what it is that is worth giving our all for, as these men did.

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