On April 2, thanks to my lovely adult daughter, she and I were standing in the middle of Omaha Beach in Normandy at low tide.
Having read countless books on D-Day and the allied assault and advance through Europe, I was shocked at the reality of this place compared to the movies and written words I had previously experienced. How blessed we are to have had so many of our citizens willing to put themselves in the line of fire as a living sacrifice to a greater good. I hope, as time passes and people age, we are not in danger of forgetting the heroism and example of the men who stormed the beaches on June 6, 1944.
We were very moved that day by listening to our guide, Roel Klinkhamer, whom we found through the “Rick Steve’s Europe” website. Moving to France from the Netherlands all because of his intense interest in the topic, Roel has given more than 1,900 D-Day Tours. One would think that after 1,900 times on this beach, he might be immune to any emotion, but as he described in detail what faced those very young men on that day, his voice cracked and one could see his eyes glisten — repetition of the story seemed to enhance his appreciation of the event, not dull it. The man was a veritable encyclopedia of information on all things D-Day. What a magnificent and moving experience he gave us.
The first thing that struck us was the size of the beach. The only visual experience I have ever had with Omaha Beach was through the movies (particularly “The Longest Day”), and it certainly did not communicate how far those men had to go once they left their boats — 500 yards of absolutely wide-open flat beach with lots of people on the high ground shooting. Klinkhamer repeated the information I had read in Steven Ambrose’s book that the Navy’s massive bombardment missed their targets and bomb craters on the beach, which would give the landing troops some cover, were non-existent. One has to really stand there in the middle of that flat beach to appreciate how utterly defenseless and terrifying it must have been. But they still jumped off their landing craft and moved inland.
I think one of the mistakes we make, particularly when contemplating D-Day, is that in our efforts to honor those people, both through print and movies, we tend to see their example only in the context of the event and thus fail to recognize that sacrifice for the welfare of others can, and should, happen outside the battleground. Too often, we communicate, particularly to young boys, that heroism, valor and sacrifice can only take place in the heat of battle.
My visit to Omaha Beach, Ste. Mere-Eglise, Pont Du Hoc, Arromanches, Brecourt Manor and especially the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer has encouraged me to not only appreciate the sacrifice, but to consider my own attitude toward a willingness to put it all on the line for the greater good.
In the overall scheme of things, life is not only very precious, but also much too short for most of us — but I wonder who has had the richer existence, the one who is willing to give it all up for others and then does so at 19 years of age or the one who lives a self-centered materialistic life for 80 or 90 years with little or no concern for anybody else?
I would suggest that to truly honor the brave men on the beaches at Normandy 68 years ago we should not merely remember and appreciate, but replicate the attitude that motivated their actions. That means to have a rich and fulfilling life; one would hope to maximize its length and be willing to live each day with the very same commitment that led all those men to jump off the landing craft and face the uncertainties that lay ahead. They stormed the beaches to make the world a better place; and I suspect if we live our day-to-day lives with that same sacrificial attitude, the world would indeed be a better place.
Not an easy task in the selfish, narcissistic, name-calling, angry and immoral society that has evolved since June 6, 1944. Would that we all honor the memory of those brave people by being a bit less bitter, a bit more giving and a whole lot more appreciative of the blessings we have been given by living in this country at this time in history.