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Friday, May 26, 2017

Not Just Another Holiday

Like many Americans, I typically have seen Memorial Day as little more than a day off work. Sure, I knew the meaning of the day, and I did give a silent thanks to those members of the US military who died in defense of our country. One year I took a guided tour of a local cemetery in California on Memorial Day. But that was about it.

Then I went on a wonderful hiking trip to France, and that trip changed everything.

France is a beautiful country known for its cuisine (the pain au chocolate -- a flaky pastry with chocolate inside -- is my favorite), its wines and cheeses, and its fashion. I ended my trip with two days in Paris, but I enjoyed the countryside regions of Normandy and Brittany much more.

The most moving part of the trip -- and my primary reason for going -- was a visit to Omaha Beach, where Allied forces won a hard-fought battle against German guns, land mines and machine guns. The D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, changed the course of the war.

At either end of Omaha Beach are 300-foot-high cliffs of rock. Due to a series of errors by the Allies, the first troops to reach the beach were mowed down by German machine gun fire. Bombs had missed their targets. Tanks sank in the ocean. Engineers tasked with clearing the beach of land mines were unable to complete their mission. Soldiers deployed in deep water found themselves sinking under the weight of their 80-pound packs. Guns got wet. Reports were that it was impossible to walk on the beach without stepping on bodies. But by the end of the day, the Allies were able to gain two tenuous footholds on the beach. 

Our French guide did a great job of explaining what happened on that beach. A German gun emplacement was visible nearby, as was a fortified machine gun nest. Because the tide was out, we could see remnants of a temporary harbor. The brainchild of Winston Churchill, the harbor is considered one of the greatest engineering feats ever. Two temporary harbors were built, one on Omaha Beach for American forces and one on Gold Beach for British and Canadian troops. This harbor allowed 220,000 men, 50,000 vehicles and 600,000 tons of supplies to be landed on the French coast, according to a Daily Mail story. (  
Parts of a temporary harbor constructed for the D-Day invasion are visible off Omaha Beach

As we walked along the beach, the four members of our group became quiet as we learned details of the battle and reflected on the bravery and sacrifices of the young men who fought there. Nearby, I could see a bit of Utah Beach, where my father -- a young sailor of 19 in the US Navy -- had taken part in the battle. His destroyer was quickly sunk by German fire. While some of his shipmates perished, he was picked up by a British war ship after spending some time in the cold waters of the Atlantic. 

That afternoon, we walked along part of the path that US troops had used on their way inland. We then had a couple of hours on our own to explore the US military cemetery at Colleville, high on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. 

The cemetery, on land donated by the French government in perpetuity, contains some 9,387 headstones -- either white marble crosses or Stars of David -- each inscribed with the name, military branch and dates of a service man who died during the invasion or ensuing military operations. Many of the graves are merely symbolic. Some of the deceased were repatriated to the US, while others were never found. Some headstones honor a soldier whose remains were never identified.

The cemetery is a place of sadness, knowing how many young lives were lost. And it is a place of beauty, with manicured lawns and a view of the beach where so many died. I was very moved as I walked among the headstones and through the visitor center. Although none of my family members perished in the war (both my father and uncles served), I nonetheless felt a great sense of sadness, as well as a sense of gratitude for their sacrifices. Our guide noted that during a previous tour of Omaha Beach, a veteran who had fought there commented that "I wasn't killed here, but I died here."

We have lost most of the D-Day survivors during the more than 70 years since this history-making battle. Estimates put the number of surviving veterans at between 5,000 and 10,000. In a few years, there will be no one left who took part in the horrendous battles on the beaches of France. 

I hope the passage of time will never erase the sacrifices of those men from several countries whose bravery marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. Please, take a moment this Memorial Day to remember those who paid the ultimate price, during World War II, the Korean conflict, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq and all the other armed conflicts. Fly the American flag. Go to a parade. Thank a member of our armed forces. 

However you choose to mark Memorial Day, please take a moment from your grilling or picnics or baseball games, and remember those who went to war and never came home.