Sometimes I look backward, to see forward. It was March 1983, 39 years after the event, and now 38 years ago. I was alone, no one there. Empty beaches, white crosses, searching thoughts to the horizon. So much ended here, so much began here, in Normandy, France. When people wonder if freedom is still worth the fight, this is the place to come – to confirm it is.
I pulled my collar up, hair whipped by a cold wind pouring off a gray sea. My 23-year-old eyes scanned the shipless, vacant sea to where gray met gray – searching something. I came to listen, feel, smell, see, and imagine – as students of WWII hopefully always will.
Before me lay unstained sand, unbloody water, not what it was that terrible day. Beyond the beach lay remnants of an artificial harbor, cement and ships scuttled to shelter the invasion. Planned for June 5, 1944, weather led Ike, Supreme Allied Commander, to put it off a day.
Here and there, rusted landing craft (old Higgins boats) stood by, looking like scrap. Yet that day, they were the fingers of destiny, uncurling into machinegun nests, delivering men of steel – actually, just scared boys – to save the world. By nightfall 10,000 were dead, missing, or wounded beyond movement. That was the price of freedom. I pulled my collar farther up.
I walked the beach looking up, beachhead looking down. I touched cold concrete, squared-off German strongpoints, part of Rommel’s Atlantic Wall, disintegrating now, death to death and dust to dust. Above the beaches, grassland rolled in all directions. Flat ground, where crosses stood row on row, I knew from photos this was where they fell, picked up by boys who knew them, resettled in rows under sheets, which in time became crosses, where they crossed over.
As history is best recalled by touching it, my fingers ran through what lay at my feet, knowing this earth was what men struggled to cover, and what covered so many – unfree dirt made free by their sacrifice. I smelled the salty air, somehow knowing it was only peripheral. They had smelled more blood, mud, sand, and spent rounds. Still, they must have smelled salt.
Everything around me, other than crosses and trees, was barren and quiet. Crosses were engraving, trees showing first life. Wind filled my ears, making the waves inaudible. The disconnect seemed a messenger, saying you cannot hear, not even imagine, what they heard.
Some crosses marked aviators and paratroopers who died before June 6, some marked women, some read “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” How many died unidentified? So violent was the day, nearly 2000.
I struggled to remember other facts, shivering. Where I stood – stretching left, right, and behind out of sight, 160,000 American, British, and Canadian soldiers landed by air and sea, swarmed five beaches, Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword, Juno. They were prepared for cliff scaling, hedgerow-to-hedgerow fighting, small arms to tanks, liberation of Paris, defeat of Germany. But that day nothing was certain – not even the next sunrise. Thousands never saw it.
How hard-won freedom is, how easily cheapened by time, how often lost by degree if left untaught, is what I thought. In 1983, Ronald Reagan was president. He had lived through WWII, knew of what he spoke. A year later, he would celebrate D-Day’s 40th anniversary here, deliver his “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech, honor courage. Today, it was just desolate.
Other facts flooded back. This invasion – creating freedom’s fragile foothold – was not a foregone victory. It was preceded by the invasion at Dieppe, summer 1942. That landing was a disaster, putting 6000 men ashore, of whom 3623 were killed, wounded, or captured, 106 aircraft and 33 landing craft lost – complete retreat. The Germans pushed the Allies into the sea. It could have happened here, or Anzio, or Sicily – but did not. Courage of free humans tipped the scale.
The will of free men to risk all for what they love, home, family, town, country, fellow man, to struggle, fight, live and die for a soul beside us, is a remarkable, world-changing force. Americans are steeped in this knowledge, love of freedom, understanding that to forget is a sin unworthy of the sacrifice – or we always were. We must be ahead.
On that day, on those beaches, little facts flooded my mind. Most of those who died were younger than me. Ike’s call of June 6, not June 5, turned on faith in one man – a meteorologist with whom senior officers disagreed. Ike stood by him. Had he not, June 5 would have been an unmitigated disaster, likely another Dieppe. History hinges on such small facts.
In the same month, 46 years earlier, young Theodore Roosevelt (TR) stormed Cuba in the Spanish American War, charged San Juan Hill. TR’s eldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was at Normandy – the only general to storm those beaches in the first wave.
TR Jr. died before Paris was liberated, posthumously won the Congressional Medal of Honor. His father TR was posthumously awarded the honor for San Juan Hill. TR’s youngest son – TR Jr.’s brother – Quentin, died in combat over France in World War I. Today, the brothers are buried side-by-side at Normandy. Wrote TR: “It is not the critic who counts.”
So tenuous was Operation Overlord’s outcome that Ike penned a message “in case.” It began “Our landings … have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops …If any blame of fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” So much hinged on Normandy.
Even 38 years after that visit, I recall it all. The barren beaches grew in my eyes, became unforgettable, and remain emblematic of the unending fight that free men and women must, in their time, engage. We see what is needed in our time, by reference to what was done in theirs.
Our job today, speaking for freedom, not allowing encroachment, knowing our past and teaching it, is easier than what those boys – and they were just boys – did for us on those iconic beaches, under withering fire, knowing not what tomorrow brought but for what they fought. They did and we must, every day of every year for all time – because freedom is worth that fight.