Will Our Children Know and Care About June 6, 1944?

Editor’s Note: While we were living in France, my husband was invited by the American Embassy in 2014 to take a group of students from the American School in Paris to a commemorative ceremony overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. The presidents of France and the United States spoke. American veterans of that fateful day were present. It was a time to reflect on remarkable courage and leadership–with freedom as the outcome. I wrote about that experience here: https://atasteofmind.com/2014/06/19/the-unexpected-in-normandy/

Five years later, as the 75th D-Day anniversary approaches, we now live in the U.S. and find ourselves thinking about our country’s role in today’s world. I asked my husband to be a guest writer and offer his perspective on keeping the spirit of D-Day alive. What follows are his remembrance and thoughts about an historic event and the hope that the metaphoric message of D-Day will live on throughout all generations. Thank you, Mark.

“an orchard of graves”, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach

There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves.Barbara Kingsolver

Second Lieutenant Richard Winters parachuted into D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944, separated from his weapon as he jumped, landing miles away from the rest of his Easy Company 506 Parachute Regiment.  A soldier from another company, who came down near Winters, asked if they were lost. Lieutenant Winter’s response? “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.” Operation Overlord had begun at 1:30AM on a pitch-dark morning. 

In all, about 75,000 Americans parachuted behind the lines or disembarked from an armada of boats onto Utah and Omaha beaches that first day. Casualties were over 10,000. With unimaginable sacrifice and courage, so began the liberation of France and, once the breakout unfolded beyond Normandy, the fall of German Fascism.  

Consider that seventy-five years ago the youth of America with their lives out in front of them came ashore, under withering fire, based on a premise of arriving into a country not their own, fighting to liberate a people they did not know, and becoming one with the human race in a fight against Nazism. Not words but actions to preserve democratic ideals of self-government, liberty, equality and human freedoms. “America First”–no.  American leadership–yes. In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

But on June 6, 1944 there was terror amid bloodshed and dying young men crying out for their mothers. It was a time when America did the most important thing on earth by letting besieged nations know they were not alone. It was American power with characteristic capacity for good.   

Today if you fly into Paris, rent a car, and drive into the Normandy countryside you will see two flags adorning doorways of farmhouses and homes–the French tri-color and the American stars and stripes. Young school children still tend the graves in allied cemeteries across France.

two flags, two allied nations

Five years ago, I took students to Colleville-sur-Mer, in Normandy, France, to participate in the ceremony of the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings. That year’s commemoration brought together then U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande at the Normandy American Cemetery.  They spoke of what love means after all: sacrifice and selflessness. Standing on this ground, absorbing the meaning of their speeches, made me weep.  I wanted every child from now to eternity to understand what happened in Normandy.  

entrance to American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach, Normandy

President Obama observed that, If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world. And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history.”  

Then our president said, “But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it.  And when the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild.  We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.  But America’s claim — our commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being — that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.”  

How important it was for our students, surrounded by 9388 gravestones, to hear about America’s (and our allies) sacrifice beyond borders.   

9388 gravestone markers stretching toward the sea

President Hollande described the reality of that day in 1944, Seventy years ago to the day, right here, opposite this beach, this beautiful beach on the Riva Bella, thousands of young soldiers jumped into the water under a torrent of gunfire and ran toward the German defenses. They were 20 years old, give or take a few years, and at that moment, who could say that 20 was the best age in life? For them, 20 was the age of duty, it was the age of commitment, it was the age of sacrifice. They were cold; they were afraid. On that June 6th the air, so pure today, was thick with the smoke of the first clashes, and riven by the din of explosions. The calm water we see today was striped with foam from the landing craft and red with the blood of the first combatants. What were those 20­-year­-olds thinking in the face of this terror? They must have been thinking of their beloved mothers, their fathers so worried, their loved ones so far away, their childhoods so recent, and their lives so short, lives whose horizons were blotted out by the war.”

“And yet those young men, amid that hell of fire and steel, didn’t hesitate for one second. They advanced, advanced across the soil of France, braving the bullets and shells; they advanced, risking their lives to defeat a diabolical enemy; they advanced to defend a noble cause; they advanced, yes, and went on advancing, to free us, to liberate us at last.”

The French president reminded us about the character of America and our country’s leadership, “But the soldiers who came from the sea had achieved the essential thing. The essential thing was to set foot on French soil, and on 6 June they had begun to liberate France. And as the sun set on the Longest Day, a radiant beam of hope rose over subservient Europe. On these Normandy beaches, the memory lingers of a bitter, uncertain, decisive confrontation. On these peaceful Normandy beaches, the souls of the fighters who gave their lives to save Europe live on. On these tranquil beaches, whatever the weather, whatever the climate of the seasons, a single wind blows, the wind of freedom. It still blows today.”  

Presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande, June 6, 2014, Omaha Beach

On that beautiful spring day in the “orchard of gravestones”, Normandy American Cemetery, all of us attending the 70thanniversary recognized that freedom is fragile and that we must stand together as nations. Hollande continued, “I’ve talked about courage – the courage of the soldiers, the courage of the resistance fighters, the courage of people at the time; courage in wartime. But courage in peacetime is just as essential and necessary. What motivated the soldiers who landed here 70 years ago? Their patriotic duty? Yes, no doubt. But also an idea, an idea they all shared, whatever their nationality: by setting foot here, on these beaches, they were carrying a dream, a dream which seemed impossible in 1944; a dream born out of the depths of despair, a dream which enlightened their conscience. What was this dream? It was the promise of a world free from tyranny and war.” 

Speaking directly to President Obama, François Hollande said, “Mr. President, the French people recognize an indefatigable energy in America, an ability to innovate, create, invent and carry the dream of success. But what they admire the most in the American people – because they themselves are its most ardent champions – is their love of freedom. And my compatriots know that, when the critical moment comes, when our principles are in danger, France and the United States always come together, as in that terrible summer of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and on the beaches of Provence.”

playing the national anthems of France and the U.S.A.

How is it possible to hear the French president’s words about the spirit and character of America and not feel proud, and today wonder how we would ever compromise this legacy under the moniker of “America First?”  What is the message we send our youth about the principles of democracy and friendship between nations being worth courage and sacrifice?  The story of June 6, 1944 must live in the hearts of today’s and future generations too.  

As the 75thanniversary of the Normandy landings approaches, with many fewer World War II veterans alive, is there not still a message about America’s leadership overseas?  To honor those young, forever young soldiers who died for our freedom on foreign soil that day in 1944, what decisions will we make about our world? Is it going to be totalitarianism or will democracies prevail?  Will the current “America First” idea, or runaway nationalism, diminish the message of Normandy?  History tells a different story. America was not so constructed. We lead with generosity.  

Today, American leadership around the world is perhaps in doubt, especially when leaders of other countries are asked. We appear to be an uncertain friend. Our moral compass is without a true north.  

Maybe the Longest Day, seventy-five years later can serve as a reminder that if there is an “America First” concept, it is our willingness to step into the breach–to advance values born out of the Constitution and with our allies in common purpose to preserve freedom around the world.

It was William Blake who said, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”  We remember June 6, 1944 by defining a hero as someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Such thinking might well apply to individuals and nations alike. A life message to all children–we want them to know and to care.  

Let “America First” mean finding our way with confidence and courage to confirm our nation’s place as an agent for good in the world. On this principle, we need to stand rock solid. Think of two soldiers finding their way on the darkest of nights, having been dropped from the sky, not knowing what was ahead, but optimistic–where the metaphor of our time lies in the hopeful words of Dick Winters, “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.”  

The Unexpected in Normandy

This article touches only on the FRANCO-AMERICAN aspects of D-Day, 70 years ago.  Other members of the Allied Expeditionary Forces landed in Normandy at the same time, assuring the success of the invasion. 

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower and members of the 101st Airborne, pre-invasion, June 1944

Throughout military history, the most well constructed plans sometimes result in unexpected outcomes. It happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944. In the pre-dawn hours, American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were scattered all over the Normandy countryside. Most of them had completely missed their drop zones. As they reached the coast of France, heavy incoming anti-aircraft fire caused C-47 pilots to turn on jump lights too quickly. Soldiers landed far from designated assembly areas, sometimes losing weapons and equipment in the hasty exit. In the Band of Brothers episode, “Day of Days”, Captain Richard Winters and a nervous private were walking through the darkness looking for orienting landmarks. The private asked, “Do you have any idea where we are, sir?” “Some,” came the answer. The soldier mused, “I wonder if the rest of them are as lost as we are.” To which Captain Winters replied, “We’re not lost, private. We’re in Normandy.” 

And so were we. Unexpectedly. Seventy years later, June 6, 2014.

Only three days earlier, the U.S. Embassy had issued an invitation for a small group from the American School Paris to attend the Franco-American D-Day Ceremony in Colleville-sur-Mer. Presidents François Hollande and Barack Obama would speak to guests and returning veterans at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. For many soldiers it would be their last trip to the site where the tide of World War II turned. And, perhaps, their last time to honor fallen comrades.

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American Cemetery Omaha Beach

The embassy established a strict timetable. Our bus had to pass inspection in Caen at 6:30AM. The engine number was even registered in advance for security purposes. It was another hour’s drive to the memorial site and a second security checkpoint. We were to be seated by 9:30AM. Traffic between Paris and the Norman coast would be heavy, so an early start was scheduled. But, unexpected things happen.

We left school at 3:00AM. Students retreated to the back of the bus and immediately fell asleep. The three adults chatted quietly for the first two hours. I dozed off briefly, but was awakened by loud engine noises and a bad smell. The bus was not moving. Clearly the mechanical problem was serious and unfixable. It was 5:30AM. A replacement bus would arrive from Paris, in two or three hours. There was no chance of making the security inspection on time, nor would engine numbers match the original paperwork. Students woke up, but remained quiet. The possibility of missing the ceremony was unspoken and on everyone’s mind.

Around 6:15AM, a Secret Service convoy pulled up next to us. We explained our situation to the lead driver who told us that he was chauffeuring Mary Eisenhower, Dwight’s granddaughter from his son, John. Everyone perked up at the “celebrity” citing. Unfortunately, agents nixed the idea of our group hitching a ride with the VIPs. They pulled out and drove on.

One student mentioned that his father was leading President Obama’s embassy detail in Paris. We called to tell him about the broken down bus and the ruptured schedule. Awhile later, two French “Gendarmerie” [state police troopers] arrived on motorcycles.

gendarmerie escorts

The boy’s father had arranged for a personal police escort to speed us through the inspection checkpoint and on to the Cemetery! By 8:15AM, we were back on the road with “Our Gendarmes” leading the way. Moods shifted to a higher gear.

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leading the way to inspection point

At the first traffic jam, our escort turned on flashing lights and sirens and led us down the wrong side of the road. We skirted a long lineup of vehicles waiting to enter the inspection area. By 9:00AM, dogs had sniffed the bus, forms were stamped, and window stickers applied. Landing at Omaha Beach was next. Closely following the motorcycle brigade, we swerved around roadblocks and through roundabouts, literally holding onto our seats. Local residents lined the streets to watch the parade into the Memorial area.

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merci beaucoup les gendarmes!

Arrival…10:00AM! After thanking the Gendarmes, we inched forward with the crowd waiting to pass through security scanners. Overhead, President Obama arrived on Marine One with four accompanying Osprey helicopters.

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the background view

At the Memorial area, chairs overflowed with 15,000 people stretching down the grassy field between the white marble markers. More than 200 American veterans from D-Day 1944 were seated on the stage. Small French and American flags decorated each of the 9,387 grave sites. The sky and the sea, both deep lapis blue, created a stunning backdrop.

The Ceremony opened officially with the posting of the colors, French and American. The two national anthems were played, followed by a prayer. French President Hollande spoke first. He commemorated the day, 70 years before, using beautiful, descriptive language. He spoke of France’s gratefulness to the American Allies. He thanked the United States for both her help and the ultimate sacrifice made by young men. On the first day of the invasion, 4,000 American soldiers died. The Battle of Normandy lasted three months, until Paris was liberated at the end of August. The total cost was 20,838 American lives.

During President Obama’s speech there were two standing ovations for the veterans seated behind him. He said, “We are here on this Earth for only a moment in time. And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago. So we have to tell their stories for them. We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for. We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy today.” The President reminded us: “Whenever the world makes you cynical…stop. And think of these men. Whenever you lose hope…stop. And think of these men.”

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F-15 jets in missing man formation

Together, the two presidents laid a wreath for fallen soldiers, followed by a moment of silence. Three cannons poised on top of the cliff above Omaha Beach boomed a 21-gun salute. A trumpet played “Taps”. Finally, three F-15 jets flew over the cemetery in “Missing Man” formation, remembering those who didn’t return home.

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 veteran interview

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ASP students and teacher with veteran

Of all the unexpected events that had happened so far, the most meaningful one took place when the ceremony was over. After the dignitaries departed, we approached the stage where some of the sturdier veterans lingered. We were able to listen to stories from the men themselves. I overheard an interview with a soldier, 93 years old. His hand stayed cupped by his ear to hear the questions, but he answered each one clearly and humbly.

another old soldier

We shook hands with veterans in wheel chairs and on walkers, thanking them. The students listened intently to stories of the heroism of comrades who did not survive. Respects were paid to the men now resting in the serenity of the cemetery. Row upon row of white marble crosses stretch across the grass, each etched with a name, rank, company, hometown, and the day of death. They stand in perfect formation, like the soldiers themselves once did.

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in perfect formation

On June 6, 1944, the unexpected happened. That same day in 2014, none of us expected to feel such intense emotion and awe as we mingled with surviving veterans. But we did. Every one of these men had been there on those bloody beaches or scattered across the countryside 70 years ago. What they accomplished changed the course of history for all of us. It is an impossible debt to repay. Sharing this special anniversary with American veterans from D-Day 1944 was an honor and a lifetime memory for everyone in our group. As the older voices continue to fade, it is up to us to keep telling the stories for them, so that the next generation and the next…will never forget the legacy they left.

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