70 years after General Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the D-Day invasion onto the beaches of Normandy France, June 6, 1944 remains one of the most revered dates in American history. During the blustery early morning hours of June 6th, 160,000 American, British and Canadian troops crossed the English Channel from Great Britain and descended upon five separate Normandy beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juneau and Sword. Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France, lasted from June 6th until the end of August 1944, when over three-million Allied troops successfully forced Germany’s surrender of France, ultimately accelerating the end of WWII in Europe. But this Allied victory was achieved at an unimaginable price. Nearly 84,000 Allied forces who participated in Operation Overlord were killed and 173,000 were either wounded or missing. Freedom came at a mighty cost.
Walking a stretch of Omaha Beach along the Normandy coastline, I watched the waves roll peacefully into shore then slowly retract, washing the once sanguineous, blood-soaked sand in a cleansing rhythm. As I stood on the beach and scanned the bluffs above it, I studied the cement remains of German bunkers. A chillingly sober feeling consumed me as I recalled the archived military footage I’ve watched of the brutally savage events on that blustery day of battle. As I approached the bunkers and looked back upon the beach, I couldn’t help but think the young soldiers who stormed the beaches that day sensed they would be easy targets for German snipers, yet they heroically pushed onward.
On June 8, 1944, out of sheer necessity, the US First Army established the first American WWII cemetery on European soil. After the end of WWII, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was consecrated on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, just a short distance from the original burial site. The remains of 9,387 American military personnel, most (but not nearly all) of whom were killed during the D-Day Invasion, are buried at Normandy’s American Cemetery. This stately memorial is breathtakingly haunting, yet breathtakingly beautiful. Rows of white crosses and the Jewish Star of David bearing the names of American heroes who courageously laid down their lives line over 100 acres of pristinely manicured lawn overlooking the beaches and the English Channel beyond, while a stately American flag waves in the breeze above. It is a felicitous place for paying homage to thousands of brave Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the price of freedom 70 years ago. Markers for those soldiers whose remains could not be identified are inscribed with “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God”.
A tribute garden, pond and semicircular wall at the American Cemetery and Memorial lists the names of 1,557 Americans who died during Operation Overlord whose remains were never found or identified. At the center is a 22′ high bronze statue of a man reaching for the sky. The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves is an incredible tribute to the young American men who sacrificed their lives on European soil during WWII. (21-years-young was the average age of the men who stormed Normandy’s beaches on June 6, 1944.)
My heart and soul forever changed that memorable day when I visited the beaches, the bluffs, and the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. I left with an even more reverent appreciation and respect for the men and women who valiantly serve the United States of America in order to maintain the freedom, equality, justice and privilege I’ve so often and so shamefully taken for granted. My deepest level of gratitude and thanks goes out to the millions of service personnel … current and past … who serve and sacrifice for American liberties. You exemplify “HERO”. My thanks also extends to the families of these fine American soldiers for your sacrifice and dedication, a worrisome and stressful life, indeed.
Today and every day, we Americans must humbly recognize that FREEDOM IS NOT FREE. Since April 19, 1775, American freedom has been paid for over and over by the blood and sacrifice of those courageous soldiers who risk and at times lay down their life to defend the United States of America for the freedom, constitutional rights and privileges we enjoy while living in the greatest country this world has ever known.