D-Day vets fade away, but their accomplishment won’t

June 5, 2014 

MILITARY CEMETARY CROSSES D DAY N

White crosses mark graves at the American cemetery near Omaha Beach.

GARY O'BRIEN — THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Seventy years later, the survivors of D-Day, and there are not many of them left, can still remember the cries of the wounded and dying, their comrades on Normandy’s beaches. They remember the awful whizzing sounds of bullets and the the “thuds” of German fire hitting Allied helmets. They remember the steep cliffs on Omaha Beach, the failed landing craft, the sight of Erwin Rommel’s traps laid in the sand and the heinous damage they did.

They are old men now, these World War II survivors, but, yes, their memories of those Normandy beaches and the allied invasion 70 years ago at Utah, Omaha, Pointe du Hoc, Gold, Juno are clear. It is interesting now to watch younger people hear their stories, sitting in a sort of stunned silence, doubting, even, that a soldier could swim for miles, as many did, wondering how these very old men might have done that.

But then, they were young, and their mission was to them about saving their country and the world from the Nazis. Called to service from colleges and corporations and cotton fields, they served without question, and thought of themselves as doing duty, not destined for glory.

When they came home, to their cities and towns, they asked for news of old friends, and in too many cases, the news was not good. They would weep privately for the boy next door now resting under a white cross in France. They would comfort his parents, when they felt up to it. They would look through their old pictures, remembering a carefree youth that never would be carefree again.

They’d go to the corner drug store, be it in Kansas or Manhattan, and the older men of the town would say, “Son, your money is no good here. Sit down and tell us what it was like at Normandy.”

Many, for a long time and in some cases forever, would not answer the question. Only those who had been there understood why.

The invasion of the French beaches on June 6, 1944, was a massive undertaking, with over 150,000 troops from Allied forces. Ultimately, there were 12,000 casualties, and that figure may be low. Over 4,000 lost their lives.

The operation was frustrated by weather and by some problems with landing craft and also, particularly on Omaha Beach, by terrain, with troops landing to face Germans fortified atop cliffs. The allies won a victory, though the cost was terrible. Mostly, the triumph was a tribute to the bravery and skill of troops who landed by sea and air and pressed on into France after the landing.

Today, the green cemeteries of the region, with their thousands of white crosses, are an eternal remembrance of those brave allies. Many a mother back home faced the decision of whether to bring a son home; some did, but others decided to let their children rest in that place far away and kept photographs of engraved crosses sent by visitors framed in their homes.

The veterans of that day now are in their late 80s or older. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates over 500 World War II veterans, men and women, die each day. Soon all will be gone.

And so on D-Day’s anniversary, Americans can pay the best tribute to the gallant people who landed on those beaches by remembering them and seeing to it that others remember them as well. Their actions, which helped to save a nation and a world, must be as gilded in history books as are the actions of those who in 1776 began to win the freedom the D-Day veterans defended and preserved.

The threat was grave on that day in 1944, and the outcome was uncertain. But the victory is celebrated every day, every time freedom rings.

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