D-Day evokes thanks to soldiers past, present, future

David Vincent/The Associated Press
A young woman visits headstones of World War II soldiers prior to a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, Thursday. World leaders are gathered Thursday in France to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

By Greg Eckerle
Special to The Herald

At the recent Jasper High School graduation ceremony, the only spontaneous standing ovation came after the introduction of the seven seniors about to enter military service.

It was a chilling moment, as thousands honored those willing to lay it all on the line to defend our country and permit us to enjoy our way of life.

Also fitting was the tribute’s closeness to Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary on June 6 of D-Day, arguably history’s greatest invasion. The storming of Normandy Beach in France by the Allied forces was a pivotal day in World War II. Two indelible memories — of craters and crosses — remain for me from a visit to that hallowed ground a few years ago.

Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press
Barbed wire covers a cliffside overlooking Omaha Beach atop Pointe du Hoc in Saint-Pierre-du-Mont, Normandy, France.

Our tour started at Omaha Beach, the bloodiest piece of earth for Americans that 1944 day. We were told the battlefield at the famed Pointe du Hoc cliff remained in much the same condition. The first look at the hundreds of large bomb craters was stunning. The American aerial bombardment, and the Navy’s artillery shelling, made the scarred landscape look like the lunar surface. The craters, so steep and deep and filled with lush green grass, were inviting targets for children to run pell-mell down the sides screaming with delight.

What a difference from 75 years ago, when the screams were from Army Rangers who had been hit in the water and on the beach. The survivors of that withering fire then had to scale a 100-foot-tall cliff and assault the German command post, a large concrete observation bunker that is a favorite tour stop today. It was frustrating to see how tantalizingly close the bomb craters were to the bunker, so near to obliterating the machine gun nests before they opened up on the Rangers. It’s eerie walking through the bunker, where nine German soldiers lived until D-Day. The evidence of the American attack is still there; the walls are pock-marked with bullet holes and grenade destruction.

Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard via AP
In this June 1944, file photo, U.S. reinforcements wade through the surf as they land at Normandy in the days following the Allies' D-Day invasion of occupied France. June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the assault that began the liberation of France and Europe from German occupation, leading to the end World War II.

The barbed wire defenses remain on the nearby cliff. It’s easy to peer down that cliff onto a narrow strip of beach and shake one’s head in wonder at just how vulnerable our soldiers were. But they made it through the firefight to begin the long march to Berlin and victory.

The tour’s last stop made the biggest impression, though, because it was the real last stop for many soldiers who didn’t make it through. I can’t fathom how any American cannot get emotional at a first sighting of the Normandy American Cemetery above Omaha Beach. The white burial crosses stretch as far as one can see on an immaculate expanse of green grass. There are 9,388 American soldiers buried there.

I walked to one cross to see what veteran’s name I would first read. I was startled to see the grave was of an unknown soldier, with the inscription “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” There are 307 such crosses in that cemetery, an overwhelming statistic. You think of the parents and friends who never knew their loved one is here beneath that cross. You think of the ones that visit the cemetery, not knowing which cross is the right one. Or, you think, he may not even be here, he may be among the untold soldiers who drowned in the English Channel before firing a shot. There are no crosses out there, just empty feelings and submerged dreams.

David Vincent/ The Associated press
This photo taken on May 30, 2019 with a drone shows Pointe du Hoc, near Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy. At the Pointe du Hoc, where Allied forces had to scale cliffs to silence Nazis guns, the limestone and clay cliffs have eroded but remains of the fortified location part of Germany's Atlantic Wall defensive system are a powerful vestige of WWII.

Nearby, 1,557 names are inscribed on the Wall of the Missing. Only God knows where they are, too.

Visitors snap lots of pictures at Normandy Beach. I don’t recall seeing any of them smiling while doing so, or smiling while others took their photo. But it’s not about the smiles there, it’s about reverently remembering and honoring the bravery of the soldiers who made it through, and those who didn’t. It’s about realizing how those young people made it possible for Americans to visit a place that remains special 75 years later, and will for all eternity.

And it’s why we will long stand and applaud the same kind of young people at high school graduation ceremonies.

Freelance writer Greg Eckerle can be reached at gregeckerle@twc.com

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com