You would think it is D-Day all over again! It is just as sobering and just as exciting.
The 70th anniversary. Why not wait to have this giant celebration on its 75th? As a docent at one of the many Normandy museums dedicated to the landings told me, “We would not know eef zer would be many more veterans to come over here by zat time”.
From military parades chock full of 1940’s vehicles and equipment, to parachute jumps, all of Normandy is once again bathed in olive drab. It is at once celebratory and somber. In between the tears and the chills is a deep undercurrent if not overriding sense of admiration, appreciation, and awe: awe that something so huge could be pulled off so well. As Stalin grudgingly stated, “The large-scale forcing of the English Channel and the mass landing of troops of allies in Northern France have fully succeeded. One must admit that the history of wars does not know any such undertaking so broad in conception and so grandiose in its scale and so masterly in execution”.
The attackers were made up of Brits, Canadians, Poles, French, Greeks, Belgians, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Australians and New Zealanders. But the predominant national contributor in materiel and uniforms, if not men, (83,000 British and Canadian versus 73,000 American, with naval back up of 53,000 American and 113,000 British) was the United States.
As one of the speakers to a large group of international students I spent fifteen days there and covered the length of Normandy into Brittany. From Cherbourg to Chartres, Deauville to Benerville, Caen to Carentan, Bayeux to every one of the landing Beaches, Argentan to Avranche, and St. Lo to St. Malo. I later, in fact, followed a friend’s father’s footsteps from Omaha Beach, through the horror of the hedgerows and the terror of tank warfare, to Mortain, Falaise, Paris, the Hurtegen Forest, the ‘Bulge’ towns of Malmedy, Bastogne, and St. Vith in Belgium, then Aachen and Stolberg in Germany, all the way to the Rhine River's Remagen Bridge upon which a shell burst injury to his back sent him home.
A lady who lived in the famous parachute landing site around St. Mere Eglise brought me to tears with her comments about her memory as a young farm girl and other citizens helping to bury the American dead. She said in her wonderfully heavy French accent, “You know, when you Americans came, we knew you were coming. We had heard ze rumors, we knew it waz a matter of time. We deed not know you would come down into our back yarrrdd; you scared our chickens. But, when you move away the Germans? when you push away the Boche? I helped my motherrr and ze otherr townspeople, we would burry your dead. And zat ees when the relationship with America started; zat is when the connection began. Because when we put your boys into ze ground, zay became our boys: when we put your sons into ze ground, zey become our sons, and we feel it to zis day." I didn't know tears didn't have to hit an eyelid as mine came gushing out upon hearing her relate that.
Houses all over Normandy are festooned with American, British and French flags. There are huge flags at the top of the Cathedral in Bayeux (home of the famous tapestry), banners even adorn the side of the towering Mont St. Michelle. The people I am staying with had come from farming stock in the area of Cherbourg. One of the great pities was to hear the mother's sadness at the time as a young girl having their cows and livestock killed or maimed having stepped on German mines. At the must-see huge D-Day museum in Caen, while watching a movie about the Utah and Omaha Beach battles, as well as the Pointe du Hoc cliff scaling, we were interrupted by a group of school kids romping, laughing, and making noise. My first reaction was anger. How could they be so disrespectful in such a sacred place? But then that was the reason we fought that war, so they could romp and laugh and make noise. The realization made me want to go romp with them.
You have heard of American Civil War or Revolutionary War re-enactors, right? There are several thousand WW2 re-enactors here. I mean it, thousands. Every one of them is authentically dressed in soldier’s fatigues, right down to the correct insignias. Did I say soldiers? Nurses are here. Townspeople are dressed in their nineteen forties-style French clothing, clothing that their parents wore, the actual dresses, trousers, and jackets. There are hundreds of Sherman tanks, jeeps, halftracks, tents, foxholes, machine guns and cannons. Several large camps have been set up complete with “The Arizona Bar”.
But get this. Not one of those thousands of American re-enactors are American: They are Danish, French, Swiss, Polish, Czech, Norwegian, name it. Not one has English as their mother tongue. That stunned me all the more. Here were people looking like my countrymen, and they weren’t! I was told to remember that Americans made up forty percent of the landing forces, but sixty percent were from everywhere else. They had been provided uniforms by the United States so it always looks like it is only Amercians storming those beaches. All of them however were paying homage to and holding great respect for their relatives - the warriors of our collective greatest generation. If it doesn’t all transport you back seventy years ago then you aren’t alive. It is stunning.
We must all understand, and understand very deeply, that the soul of a people may be likened to the keyboard of a great church organ: heavenly music may flow out of it, or the man at the keyboard may actually be a demon, as was Hitler. However, when society is heavily influenced by its civic, social, and charitable groups, democracy’s precarious but still hopeful position is preserved, its music a metaphor for an extraordinary capacity to marshal its collective good for the benefit of its citizenry. By staying engaged in civic activities, the theme of my talk, you help define the basis for harmony among the mosaic of cultures that make up our country, which in turn helps define the common interests and goals of mankind.
For younger people, taking ownership of your organization’s vision, acting as if you were the owner; and leaders, picking up the skills to guide and mold leadership in others, both coupled with consistent civic participation and civic achievement, brings you to the honor of truly being called a Good Citizen. You are doing exactly what the Tom Hanks character asked Private Ryan to do in the video clip I play during my presentations about my experiences from the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, when he said, “James, earn this; earn it”. You are “earning it”. By joining, supporting, and staying involved in various charitable or social-improvement organizations, from the Boys and Girls Clubs to the Boy and Girl Scouts, from the Soroptimists to the Elks to the OddFellows to the Masons, from local Chambers of Commerce to Downtown Preservation Societies to Voter leagues, and from charitable events you attend to the volunteering it takes to make those events happen, you strengthen and perpetuate the values that underlie political and social discourse versus focusing on differences: which only lends a deeper meaning to our membership in those organizations doesn't it? You earn it.
Isolationists delayed our entry into that war to the point where it was almost too late. However, once committed, the Normandy invasion and subsequent push across France, Belgium, and Germany to aid in the liberation of Europe was our finest hour. That said our finest hours are not behind us. Questionable reasons for going to war have recently soured us on our patriotism. Political extremism is causing much pain. Questionable leadership burns us deeply. One visit to Normandy and it becomes clear why engagement, participation, and volunteerism is so important. The opportunity to do so is why they died on those beaches.
Tyranny lurks wherever and whenever we get complacent about the search for knowledge and scientific fact. Revolution lurks when egos begin to hate their own funerals, where the wrong people are allowed to influence our youth or our governmental departments, where investor greed versus universal good becomes our overriding interest, or wherever we let human rights and humanitarianism, thus our humanity, get trampled. It all comes down to two Victory-sustaining words: Vote and Volunteer! Make sure every Millennial-aged person you know gets into the habit of doing both. WWII Supreme Commander Ike Eisenhower had you in mind as well when he said to the pre-invasion force GI’s “The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you”.
By Mac Macdonald for Military Magazine
Lighting Your OWN Fuse
A Glossary of Mission, Vision & Passion
"The world would be so much better off if books such as "Lighting Your own Fuse" were required reading for all citizens. If so we would have better insight into ourselves as well as those close to us, then logically expand that respect and understanding up the human chain to our communities and beyond."
Viet Nam war survivor