A four-year-old with her toy basket and cute yellow boots plays with her father in the sand. She has no way to understand–not that the rest of us really do, eitherâ€”that the spot on which she is playing was once a killing field, Juno Beach, where so many brave Canadian troops were subject to withering German fire on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Our tour bus from Paris hit the usual sites. Memorials to Allied soldiers pepper the area. We saw no memorials to their German adversaries, who fought all too bravely and well for an unspeakable cause. I cannot honor these men. Yet they, too, left much behind.
Like many of my contemporaries, I was a childhood World War II buff. Iâ€™ve probably read a hundred books on World War II since I was a child. I learned world geography from the battle maps of American Heritage accounts of Midway, Stalingrad, and the Ardennes. So I was intimately familiar with our guideâ€™s account of the logistical feats and planning missteps in Operation Overlordâ€™s first day.
I knew of the bombing runs missed, the amphibious vehicles than had sunk. I knew about the currents and tides led many of the invaders to arrive a fatal thirty minutes late or to land a fateful few hundred-yards from their intended site. The greatest and most consequential victory of American arms since 1865 was, at ground level, bloody chaos, replete with tragic mistakes and accidents that led thousands of men to die.
I knew about the American Rangers who rappelled the steep face of Pointe du Hoc, while German troops on the ridge above slashed their climbing ropes and rained down grenades. I did not, until Saturday, know what that rock face looked like from above.
I had not looked out to sea from the slots of those German bunkers, where doomed lookouts first spotted the thousands of Allied ships in early morning, or seen the clear view of the beaches available to outgunned but deeply embedded German defenders.
Time is passing. Every year, fewer and fewer Normandy veterans are alive to bear personal witness every year. My wife and I met an older gentleman, now retired, who was at Normandy because his father had fought there on June 6. Those buried at Normandy died so cruelly, but on behalf of monumental purpose.
Cemeteries at Normandy were the final resting place for thousands of American, British, French, Canadian, and other Allied troops who perished in that campaign. More than twice as many Americans are buried at this one Normandy cemetery than our nation has lost in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the young men buried at Normandy never reached the age of my college-age daughters. Others were young fathers who would never get the chance to fill sand buckets with their daddy on a quiet morning.
So thank you Raymond Dudley, Milton Holtzberg, John Dolan, David Kramer, Arthur Silverman, and 9,381 others buried in that place. You and your comrades achieved something remarkable that day. You are deeply missed.