D-Day

This is a wine blog. But it is also my opportunity to talk about things that matter.

I watched today as the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It looked to be a lovely day in Normandy. The sun shone on the beaches and on row upon row of white crosses, interspersed with stars, in the cemetery on the bluff above the beaches. It was also a lovely day 17 years ago, when I had the honor of representing our country in paying respects on Memorial Day to those who fell at Normandy. I laid wreaths at more than a dozen momuments and memorials.

And I spoke in a ceremony at the cemetery. I talked about my dad. He was a sailor at Normandy. A Navy lieutenant on one of the ships supporting the invasion. And I spoke of what he must have seen. I say "must have" because like most veterans, he did not talk about it much.

It was not lovely that morning 70 years ago as the sun rose in the murky dawn, slowly revealing the greatest naval armada ever assembled. The ships belched fire from their guns and aircraft roared overhead as wave after wave of landing craft surged toward zones whose names are etched in history: Gold, Juno, and Sword...Utah and Omaha.

Omaha, where artillery and machine guns raked the landing craft and the beach. The casualties were fierce. Initial units took over 90%. Soldiers fought their way ashore with incredible courage.

They faced deeply entrenched artillery and machine guns. But not enemy aircraft. For months, allied air forces flying from the UK had fought to suppress the Luftwaffe. And they had paid a terrible price. Though it is not widely known, their casualties in that campaign before D-Day rivalled those on the beaches. But they succeeded. Only two German aircraft got through the wall of aircraft protecting the landing--and they turned for home without firing a shot.

Those who landed on the beach did not have time to think about that or anything else that went before. They were in a desperate fight to gain a foothold...to get off of the beach and into the hedge rows. They advanced a yard at a time, struggling to gain control of the beach's exit points and the key terrain.

And the Rangers. Their mission was to scale the hundred foot cliff of Pointe du Hoc. The high ground above gave the German artillery vantages across the landing zones. Several hundred Rangers started up the cliffs. Only about a third survived to the top. But they did what had to do be done to control that high ground.

The paratroopers who had stepped into the night sky in the hours before dawn fought first to find each other in the dark and then to seize the key intersections and bridges just inland from the beaches.

The scale of Normandy was amazing. The largest amphibious landing in history. Over 150,000 went ashore. Many thousand were killed and many more thousand wounded. But battle is not just scale. It is also individual. It is one person at a time...each alone with his hopes and fears.

Some 10,000 of them are buried in the cemetery at Normandy...their tomorrows buried with them. They gave those tomorrows for us.

That Memorial Day in 1997 ended at a sunset ceremony in the American cemetery at St. James. I told the story again of the incredible heroism that my dad must have seen. When I finished, an elderly Frenchman approached me. He wanted to talk, but he was clearly not comfortable in English. After an awkward moment, he drew himself to attention, slowly touched his forehead and said: "I salute your father."

I was so moved. I remembered that today, as I watched the surviving veterans.

And I salute them. Those who returned to Normandy. And especially, those who never left.


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