Sunday, June 6, 2010

Remembering sacrifice

Today is the 76th anniversary of the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy: D-Day. Instead of trying to write something new to commemorate the occasion, I wanted to share something I wrote a couple of years ago, because I don't think I can do any better now than I did then.

For spring break junior year, I got to go to London, Paris, and Normandy on a trip through the Indiana University journalism school. You may or may not know that Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, was a student at IU, or that the j-school is named for him. Because of that, there's a yearly course on his life that includes a trip to trace his route through the European theater during World War II. I wrote this just after we visited Omaha Beach, the beachhead that saw probably the most ferocious fighting.

I know that this doesn't necessarily have a direct connection with politics, but I think that it is important for young people like us to make sure that things like this are not forgotten. I'm not in the military, but both of my grandfathers were career military men - one in the Army, one in the Navy - and I have friends who serve. It's important that no matter how we feel about the individual conflicts that our country enters into, we remember that our nation's soldiers are doing their damnedest to serve the United States and her people, and they deserve our gratitude and respect. I don't intend to glorify war - just the opposite. Memorial Day just passed, but this is a reminder of exactly what our soldiers have to go through, and just how brutal war always is. Don't forget it.

Watching Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers doesn’t fully communicate the true gravity of setting foot on the beaches of Normandy, but the experience definitely helps a guy to properly process the experience when it happens.

I’ve seen the movies, so I know in an incredibly watered-down way what it was like. I recognize the Czech hedgehogs. I know the names of the places the troops landed, died in, and liberated. And so when I stood on Pointe du Hoc, and on Omaha Beach, I had some understanding of what it was all about. I could see the German guns atop the cliffs, pumping anti-aircraft shells into the clouds as Americans dropped into the countryside by parachute. I could see the landing ships riding up through the surging tide, depositing their passengers in the middle of a hellish landscape, scarred by shells and machine gun rounds. I could hear the crashes, booms, cracks, and screams. Though I wasn’t there when it happened, when I stood on that beach I felt like it was happening around me.

It’s been almost 65 years since Allied forces began the great push for the freedom of Europe by invading Nazi-occupied France, and for many people, especially young people, the importance of that invasion may be starting to fade. The numbers of living veterans of World War II are dropping as time passes, and in today’s climate of government mistrust – especially in terms of war-making – it’s hard to comprehend what a war with popular support might be like.

But if you know anything at all about the war, standing on the beaches where it all happened cures all of that pretty quick. Because there’s nothing quite like standing in a place where people died for your sake to put things in perspective. People like Robert Seyler and Jimmie Monteith, people who answered their country’s call and rose to her defense. People like Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who had to submit a written petition to make the landing, and stormed the beach with only his cane and a pistol and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the Normandy beachhead. People who died serving their country, and serving each other.

The thing that makes it the most relatable is that most of the people who were landing on these beaches, and were fighting for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, weren’t particularly different from me and the rest of our group. They were young, almost exactly the age we are now. Most of them had never left the country, and this was the first time they’d seen England or France – heck, for some of them it was the first time they’d left the counties in which they were born. They were scared and homesick, much like some of us were, but probably for better reasons.

And that, I think, is the reason why when we walked that beach, we were silent, for the most part. I can speak only for myself, but I know that I was replaying the events of June 6, 1944, in my head and in my eyes, and imagining what it was like for the boys landing on the beach and dropping from the skies that day. Because I knew that but for the grace of my date of birth was I safe. If I’d been born January 11, 1923 rather than January 11, 1988, I would have been here that day, and so would many of my friends. So when my feet touched the sands of Omaha Beach, I thought of those who died here, and I mourned them. And I did my best to stand alongside them. We all did.

1 comment:

Colleen Lowry said...

This was very touching. My grandfather was in Normandy, and although he survived to tell about it, he never spoke a word to anyone about the horrors he witnessed that day.