Lest we forget: A memorial to D-Day dead

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Last week marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the landing of Allied Forces on the beaches of Normandy, on June 6, 1944. Although we had been fighting the Japanese since 1941, and against Germany in Northern Africa and Italy, this was certainly the biggest move by the United States to involve itself in the European Theater of World War II.For the rest of Europe, the war had already been raging for over five years, France had been occupied and England had been routinely bombed. It is also important because it marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi scourge that had plagued Europe.

World War II had been preceded by World War I–otherwise known as the War to End All Wars. Certainly one of the most sadly ironic subtitles to a war if there ever was one.

If you know your history, you know that World War II was a direct result of the nationalist movements that grew out of the postwar reparations and hardship forced on the countries that lost the first world war, most specifically Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it had been known prior. Our Great Depression of the 20s and 30s pales in comparison to the depression that engulfed Germany and gave rise to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party.

I had the good fortune of being in Normandy the week prior to last week’s anniversary. The usually quiet seaside towns were bustling with activity, preparing for festivities that would include visits from President Obama, Queen Elizabeth and even Russian President Putin.

One of the areas I visited was the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. It overlooks Omaha Beach where most of those buried there fell.

There are no words sufficient to convey the feeling you have when visiting this place. We’ve all seen the movies, heard the stories, maybe had uncles or grandparents who served, but you cannot prepare yourself for the image as you round the corner from the visitor’s center and see row after row after row of white crosses.

At the cemetery there were easily as many French visitors as Americans. They view this ground as hallowed and they will never forget the sacrifices made on their behalf. Driving through the tiny towns, farmhouse after farmhouse was flying the US Flag. Many had hand-made signs saying Merci Liberateurs — Thank you Liberators.

This is a common theme among the French in Normandy. They have a profound view of the sacrifice of these American soldiers — the 18, 19, 20 year-old men who came 6,000 miles from home, to a country that was not theirs, to help people they did not know.

It is estimated that over 9,000 Americans were killed on D-Day with well over 100,000 Americans killed in the Normandy campaign.

Winston Churchill said of these losses, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

In fact, to give those numbers some perspective–more Americans died during the Normandy campaign than in any other war we have fought with the exception of the Civil War. The Civil War, for obvious reasons–the casualties on both sides were Americans–is the only war to exceed World War II’s numbers.

There aren’t many World War II veterans still alive. I had five uncles as well as my father who served–all are gone now. Future anniversaries of this important day will have fewer and fewer survivors and it is up to us to remember their sacrifice.

During last week’s commemorations, President Obama said, “Here, we don’t just commemorate victory, as proud of that victory as we are; we don’t just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is; we come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at this moment of maximum peril.”

Their story should remain “seared into the memory of a future world,” he added.

Regardless of our own history, race, or political ideology, we owe much to this generation that will soon be only a memory. We owe them our memories.

When the British commemorate their military dead they read the “Ode of Remembrance,” by Laurence Binyon. At the end of the reading it is traditional for those listening to say aloud “Lest we forget.”

A fitting tribute to those who have laid down their lives for their country.

Lest we forget.

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