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.
“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.”