If time permits, wander out to Great Island Common in New Castle or a similar venue closer to home. Walk to where the landscape meets the ocean. Look upon the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. If you are lucky it will be a sunny day with a light breeze.
Now, permit me transport to the harsh reality of war.
The weather is overcast, with temperatures in the low to mid-50s, like it was 74 years ago on June 6, 1944. Envision a great armada of warships suddenly appearing as if out of nowhere. Dotting the choppy ocean are small boats filled with men. Sitting before these men are not the pleasant shores of New Castle, but a fortified beach head, a death trap. Welcome to Normandy.
It is approximately 3,269 miles from the mouth of the Piscataqua River to the picturesque French village of Saint-Laurent-sur Mer, the type of area many envision when they dream of the French countryside. Seventy-four years ago places like Saint-Laurent-sur Mer, Colleville-sur-Mer, Pointe du Hoc, Ste.-Mere-Église were the epicenter of Operation Overlord, D-Day – 1944.
Mere mention of D-Day invokes awe in most in much the same way as when we hear the word Gettysburg. I hope these places summon a sense of respect and reflection deserving of the sacrifice of people who fought and died on these battlefields. As much as these locations are to be remembered, it is the men who fought there that we honor. It is the men who died and are buried at these locations we pay tribute to on Memorial Day.
Unless you have been in battle, our imagination does little justice to what our fighting men and women experience in combat. The events throughout Operation Overlord are herculean tales of ordinary people. Lost in the extortionary deeds is a simple truth found in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt that “They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.” Liberty was the unifying resolve each of these men held in their hearts. It does not matter the battlefield or war, because that same resolve exists in the soul of every person who has ever died in service to this country.
Next to each of these Americans were French fighting for their homes, Polish fighting to reclaim their country and Jewish soldiers from every corner of the world fighting to save their very existence. Thousands would die so millions would be free. Those American soldiers who gave the “last full measure of devotion” asked nothing of us other than to remember their sacrifice, or in the words of U.S. Gen. Mark W. Clark, “Here was our only conquest: all we asked was enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead.” Buried them we did. Throughout Europe our soldiers rest in small patches of land dedicated to their sacrifice. Land such as the American Cemetery at Normandy.
Saint-Laurent-sur Mer is a short distance from the American Cemetery. Each year, the people of Saint-Laurent-sur Mer and surrounding hamlets honor the sacrifice of the Americans that lay in rest at the American Cemetery. This part of France holds the sacrifice of all those that perished with profound reverence. A reverence we must look to when observing our Memorial Day.
They remember the airborne troops that prevailed at Ste.-Mere-Église. Drifting down from the sky, off course, fired upon by German soldiers. Many dying before they hit the ground. Those that made it to the ground fought on as the people watched in amazement. Why did these men do this? This was not their village, this was not their country. The answer? Liberté, liberté, liberté! The American soldier knows the desire for liberty is a shared sacrifice; no man is free so long as there are those seeking liberty. Ste.-Mere-Église was their village on June 6, 1944.
The French still speak of the sacrifice of the U.S. Rangers that climbed knotted ropes up the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, as Germany soldiers threw grenades, fired machine guns and cut the ropes. Still they climbed, as their fellow soldiers fell around them, losing more than half of their brothers. The task asked of them was doomed, but they did it! What sort of person does this? The American soldier.
Throughout our history as a country, we have asked for extraordinary deeds from ordinary people. Each lived and died holding tight to an attitude many of us could never imagine. “In the worrier’s code there is no surrender. Though his body says stop; his spirit cries never!” As we sit here today, trying to visualize what those who perished in defense of this nation went through, our imagination does their achievements little justice. Yet the people of France still hold their sacrifice dear to their hearts, and hold true to the words of René Coty – former president of the Republic of France: “We have not forgotten, we will never forget, the debt of infinite gratitude that we have contracted with those who gave everything for our freedom.”
This Memorial Day remember all those we have lost. Set aside a little soil in your heart to honor those who gave everything for our freedom.