The 70th anniversary of D-Day brings many honors and commemorations. The U.S. Army has an excellent page dedicated to the event, filled with news of both living veterans and fallen heroes receiving the most heartfelt appreciation we can render – we, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a future they could scarcely imagine when they boarded their planes and landing craft, placing fear and hope alike in the hands of a God who would carry so many of them away from those beaches. I wonder how many of those last, living veterans – men who have generally been reluctant to discuss their experiences – look around at the world they made, and judge its achievements thanks enough. Make no mistake: very little of what you hold dear stands intact, in the mercifully invalidated history where the Allies failed at Normandy.
The UK Guardian offers a vignette from D-Day veterans returning to Sword Beach for the anniversary of the invasion. 96-year-old Ron Rogers recalls, “It was so smokey, there was so much noise, the noise was really quite terrific. The Germans where shelling, we had a rocket ship to our right. There were houses on fire in front.” He spoke surrounded by calm seas and clear skies, while “a child piled a toy tractor with sand just yards away from him.” What a perfect scene. You’re welcome, child, as your children will be welcome, and theirs, long after Captain Rogers makes his final journey to that beach.
Another British veteran in the Guardian piece, 91-year-old Jim Kelly, comes to Normandy every year, and brings a wreath to every cemetery where a fellow member of his commando unit is interred. “We promised we would do this, until the last man standing,” he explained. I hope the flowers keep coming, long after the last man has laid down for good.
NBC News writes of students from the College of the Ozarks traveling to Normandy in the company of John Cipolla, who was around their age when he jumped out of an exploding airplane, with other planes dropping out of the sky in columns of flame all around him. Program organizer Fred Mullinax described the students as coming from places where “service to country is not a punchline – it’s something that people take very, very seriously.” The people who try to write off this generation are constantly surprised by how many such places still exist.
Cipolla not only parachuted behind enemy lines and survived shrapnel blowing through his jaw – he might have been left for dead, if the impact of getting thrown into a truck hadn’t woken him up – he also took part in the liberation of concentration camps. “He remembers the piles of bodies in the trenches,” writes NBC News, “sprayed with bullets by fleeing Germans, and a few people folded among the corpses, still alive, moaning for help.”
The people who do such things have not faded from the world since the defeat of the Axis. Fortunately, neither have the heroes who stand up to them.
Last September, a pair of British artists undertook a project to draw 9,000 silhouettes on Arromanches Beach as a “Peace Day” tribute to the “civilians, German forces, and Allies who lost their lives during the Operation Neptune landing.” It made for a striking image, which one of the artists described as “a sobering reminder of what happens when peace is not present.”
Yes, but does everyone understand how peace is thrown aside? The butchers, fanatics, and tyrants of the world look upon that beach full of silhouettes and see a price they’re more than willing to pay, or make others pay. The worst of them look at it and see a good start, a fine day’s work. There are sands across the world where one might draw nine thousand silhouettes, or more. And what gives pause to the monsters who are eager to provide the inspiration for such “art” is the thought of men like the heroes of D-Day, sweeping in from the sea and down from the sky, charging through the Valley of Death and missing no evil when they empty their magazines. We have peace when the monsters are appropriately intimidated, and we might dream of taking one step closer to a day when none of them feel bold enough to spill innocent blood.
That’s a long journey indeed. Who brings peace? All of us, each and every one, when we respect our neighbors, and refuse to stand behind those who would write history in blood. Who defends peace, and retrieves it when it has been stolen? The man in combat fatigues, the woman in the pilot’s jumpsuit, the people who run into the sound of the guns and leap out of airplanes as they dissolve into balls of fire. D-Day was the definitive answer to the greatest theft of peace history has ever seen, but it was not the last. We are unknown generations away from having full confidence that another Day of Days will never be asked of America and her allies.
That’s a terrible prospect, but not one to be feared. Fear was beaten at Normandy. We are blessed that some of those veterans are still among us, to teach us how they did it. Their lessons will be carried on by many apt pupils. Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, 93 years old, jumped out of a plane over Normandy again on Thursday, modestly allowing that the experience was somewhat different this time, “because there wasn’t anybody shooting at me today.” He says he never has flashbacks to that more exciting jump 70 years ago, and feels “kind of humbled and embarrassed” at the adulation he receives today, because “I don’t feel we did anything that we weren’t supposed to do, or anything exceptional. We just did what we were trained to do.”
We still have people like that. Never doubt it. Some element of Greatest Generation nostalgia is rooted in astonishment that such people ever lived, an uncomprehending look back at a supposedly bygone era. It’s not bygone. We remain who we were back then. We forget, sometimes. There are people with a vested interest in tricking us into forgetting, and they are quite practiced at their craft. Luckily we’ve still got a few of the old crew around to remind us of what they won for us on D-Day… and the heroes of this new generation to prove it has not been lost, and never will be, not without one hell of a fight.
It was touch and go for a while, that’s for sure. Legendary correspondent Ernie Pyle, arriving in Normandy six days after D-Day, journeyed past “submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings” to say, “Now that it is over, it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.”
For a hundred generations to come, may our children be as awed, humbled, and inspired by that miracle as we are today. May the future they inhabit be as much of a miracle as the one I see around me. Night fell across a scene of terrible loss and suffering on June 6, 1944. Darkness had been defeated in battle several hours previously.