“War is Hell.” That’s one of the very few sentences my dad, who served four years in World War 2, uttered about his Army experience. An erudite and devout son of the Minnesota Prairie, he didn’t say four letter words so “War is Hell” was a ponderous statement from him. My mom was more of a storyteller. But she, too, didn’t have anything to relate about the horror, pain and loss of those years. She was a big fan of Glenn Miller’s music and, as a teenager, I once asked her if she cried (she was tough as nails) when Glenn Miller’s plane was lost over the English Channel. I’ll never forget her almost whispered response — “No. No, I didn’t. By then, so many of the young men I knew in our small town weren’t ever coming home, I was kind of numb.”
June 6th of course marks the 75th Anniversary of D-Day — the beginning of the end of WW II, of fascism’s bloody oppression across Europe, of the Holocaust genocide and of the evil behind it all: Nazism (a word which was a contracted version of “National Socialism” I hasten to add). The price paid by the Allies and their citizens in winning that war is truly unfathomable to the vast majority of us who were born later. How much hell was involved is impossible to comprehend from 75 years away, but 40-50 million people died overall in the conflagration. That’s 40-50 million — no typo. We lost 400,000 lives in the American military, and another 600,000 service people were wounded. Then there were those millions of servicemen and servicewomen, parents, other family members, friends and neighbors whose lives and minds were indelibly scarred.
Last summer we visited Normandy on a family vacation. We walked in eerie and depressed silence through the American Cemetery there. We also visited the German Cemetery, which was just as stunning, eerie and solemn. I tried to imagine myself at 20 years old, scaling a rope with grenades and bullets raining down on me at Pointe du Hoc, or jumping into the water off of a Higgins Boat at Omaha Beach. But I could not. The beach once called “Omaha” now looks like a Florida vacation — six miles of pristine sand with children building castles and running into rolling waves.
There are only a few reminders of the hell on that day 75 years ago – a tank impediment here, a gunner’s cement foxhole barely visible on the hill over there. But there was one moment when I turned and saw the end of an original hidden howitzer gun pointing right at me. The bunker and the gun were positioned to shoot sideways at soldiers landing across the sand, not out into the water at ships as one might expect, in order to kill as many as possible in its path. Then I turned again to look out to sea. There at the edge of the water was my son, 25 years old and just entering the prime of his life, wanting to touch the water of Omaha Beach. I suddenly felt like a parent of a soldier and I shuddered.
The next stop on our tour was a small village church that served as an Allied field hospital in June 1944. On the pews were blood stains from somebody’s fatally wounded son. “Land of the free, home of the brave” gained new intensity for me.
Those of us who’ve grown up in the prosperity of the Post-War Era would do well to think about the Greatest Generation’s sacrifice and the sacrifice across all generations that have created this great country. Never forget.