Twenty years ago today, I had the extraordinary honor of speaking and laying wreaths during the Memorial Day commemoration in the cemetery at Normandy. Looking out on row after row of white crosses and white stars glistening in the morning sun was one of the most powerful moments of my life.
As I reflected on that today, I thought about my dad. I gazed at a painting of a ship he commanded for the last year of the war. He was the second commanding officer--replacing his friend, Josh Barney. He was one of the fortunate ones...he came home. Many of those he saw, and served with, did not. When he came home, Josh Barney introduced him to a war widow whose husband had been killed in North Africa. It was my mom.
Memorial Day had always mattered to me. But it took on new meaning in 1997, when I spoke at the ceremony. Unlike the annual D-Day celebration, which is a major international event, the Memorial Day commemoration is more personal...it's sponsored by citizens in Normandy who were, and remain, grateful to those who sacrificed so much to liberate them.
The head of the organizing committee had not been there to greet Americans when they landed in June 1944, though he was old enough and he was from Normandy. In fact, he didn't meet his first American until almost a year later...it was a grizzled Army sergeant who broke down the gate of his concentration camp.
I stood with him and others on the stage and listened as a military band played the US and French national anthems...followed by rifle volleys and taps. And I looked out over the countless rows of simple white crosses and stars. A flight of F-15s was over the beach coming at us. And as the wingman pulled vertical to create the missing man formation--the airman's salute to honor fallen comrades--my eyes glistened.
Then I spoke. I talked about what it must have been like as the sun rose on D-Day. My dad was there...on one of the many, many ships. He saw the inconceivable courage of young men, who--knowing more or less what to expect--waded ashore into an inferno of fire. The casualties were horrific. The first unit took about 96%. But they kept coming.
And he heard the airplanes roar over head. The allies had air superiority at D-Day, so there were not many lost in the skies that day. The price had been paid in the preceeding months. In fact, estimates suggest there were more lost in the skies of the air campaign preceeding D-Day than there were on the beach. Those sacrifices made the landing possible.
With hindsight, we can appreciate the big picture of Normandy...the enormity of numbers...the impact on history. Yet, ultimately, the story is not about numbers. It is about indivduals. One soldier...one sailor...one airman. Each alone with his thoughts and fears on the eve of battle. I'm reminded of the words of a tired Marine in Korea who was asked if he could have anything in the world, what he might want. "Tomorrow," he said. "Just give me tomorrow."
Too many of them did not get that wish. They sacrificed all their tomorrows at Normandy and a thousand other places that we might live in peace and freedom. We pause on Memorial Day to honor them. And just as they were years ago, my eyes are glistening.