Memorial Day at Normandy, 2016

(Me from two years ago)

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, either—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.

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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. I’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 guide’s account of the logistical feats and planning missteps in Operation Overlord’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.

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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.

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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.

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Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “Memorial Day at Normandy, 2016”

  1. Burying an unknown soldier under a cross headstone is curiously insensitive. The stele designed by Edwin Lutyens for the Imperial War Graves Commission after 1918 is, correctly, neutral, allowing the appropriate religious symbol where known to be placed in relief. War graves of Muslim Indian soldiers at a cemetery in Brighton – wounded Indian soldiers were bizarrely cared for in the kitsch-Mughal Brighton Pavilion, converted into a military hospital.

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    The British Army had been forced to learn a degree of cultural sensitivity by the Indian Mutiny of 1857, sparked by the use of tallow from cows (and allegedly pig lard) to grease cartridges which had to be bitten open by Hindu and Muslim sepoys for use in the newly issued rifles.

    A friend of my father's had been a sergeant on the staff of General Gale, commander of the British 6th Parachute Division which landed near the Orne at the eastern end of the landings on the night of June 5-6. He was deeply marked by the experience and retired to the small village of Ranville, the first to be liberated. He became involved in a three-sided bureaucratic war over the remains of a handful of paratroopers killed very early on and buried by the curé in the parish churchyard, before the gruesome apparatus of the army for processing casualties had kicked in. In one corner was the Bishop of Bayeux, worried (with some reason) whether the dead soldiers were Catholics or indeed Christians. In the second corner was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which wanted the remains moved to an official war cemetery where they could be looked after properly. In the third corner were the Norman villagers. Their view was that these young men, whatever their beliefs, had died to set their parents free, they were now at rest together in their Ranville cemetery, and they were damned if the bodies should be moved. It was no contest really. Norman peasants have been digging their heels in against officious bureaucrats for a thousand years. As far as I know, the paratroopers are still there.

  2. When I was a boy, one of my neighbors–a logger and sawyer–told his memories of D-Day once in my hearing. He was one of the survivors of Omaha Beach.

    When I went to Omaha Beach, though, the cemetery that hit me the hardest was the German cemetery. Almost no one was prime fighting age–it was 17-year-olds and 45-year-olds.

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