75 summers ago, my then-17 year old Uncle Carl joined the United States Army, participated in basic training, boarded a ship to Europe, and helped to save the world from the mad-onslaught of Adolf Hitler’s satanic, maniacal sweep across that Continent.
My uncle could not have known, the day he signed the Army papers, that he would be on Omaha Beach at Normandy less than a month after D-Day, the 75th anniversary of which we are rightly commemorating during the month of June.
My uncle told me, many years later in his typically understated manner, that of that time in his life, “There was a lot going on.” Indeed there was.
By the time the liberation of Europe had been completed, my uncle had “seen action” – that era’s euphemism for deadly combat and extreme violence – not only in France but also in Germany and in Italy, where he would suffer a life-long impact on his neck, spine, and legs following a frigid and seemingly endless stay in an earthen foxhole.
For many years, and in the manner that children listen to adult conversation with only one ear, I would gather the broad shards of his service but found that, by the time I was in my 20s, I really didn’t know any of the particulars of my uncle’s World War II experience. I asked him casually one day if I might sit down and interview him about it. He demurred, and simply said, “Someday.”
A number of years later, I realized that my uncle was not getting younger – and neither was I – so I asked again if we might, at last, have that conversation, even if only for family posterity. He assented, and with remarkable detail, he shared what it was like to miss his high school graduation because of his Army commitment, have his father collect his diploma at the graduation ceremony in his stead, head to basic training (which was otherworldly), board a transport to Europe in the throes of post-Pearl Harbor America, and prepare to defend our country and her allies in the greatest conflagration in the history of the world.
After that conversation, and for the rest of my life, I never quite saw my uncle the same way. This man I had known since childhood had seen, and done things, that he could barely summon the words to describe. And perhaps the most poignant moment – he was otherwise lovingly unsentimental by nature – he tried to explain to me the transition of coming home from war and starting again.
I asked him about that bridge-way in his young life, and his explanation touched my heart in a deep place: What could we do? We had to start again. We knew we had to come home, and build our lives. We all had to — those of us who were lucky enough to come home.
One of my favorite films, and perhaps one of the greatest the Golden Era of Hollywood ever made, is the World War II classic THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. Three men, all from the same small Iowa town, return home after the war on the same day.
One is a banker and of the town’s establishment; the second veteran embodies the middle class virtues of 1940s America, replete with a major war injury; and the third is from a lower-class family who can’t fully internalize the fear that has changed him and his scope on life forever. The subtext of the film, and the heart of its greatness, is that war changes people in such subtle and profound ways that they can never really again fail to distinguish the important from the mundane.
As disparate as their backgrounds are, their aspirations of how to “start again” is the common human connection after the devastation of the war. They echoed my Uncle Carl’s need to transition from war and death to domestic life after the charnel house reality of the brutality of World War II.
In 2009, my dad and I traveled to Normandy and stood on Omaha Beach. We prayed together near the famed monument “Les Braves” to America’s bravery on the edge of the English Channel near the little town of Vierville-sur-Mer, and spent a remarkable afternoon walking the bluffs near Pointe du Hoc, finally visiting the American cemetery surrounded by the flock of 9,388 crosses and Stars of David of the heroic war dead. In the midst of that cemetery is a beautiful chapel defined by its pristine landscape and Latin cross.
When we returned to the United States, we visited my Uncle Carl. With vividness and clarity, he shared with us the memories of the French hedgerows, sand, and sea that define that part of Normandy. It was as if he were 17 years old again, memory upon memory. It was among the most special memories of my life – my uncle, my dad, and me.
The events at Normandy on June 6, 1944, were rightly and nobly commemorated with a presidential speech near the five beaches that comprise Operation Overload, the catalysts for the largest military invasion in the history of warfare. The heads of state came together to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and to affirm the cementation of the alliance among America, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and Poland.
For thousands of families like ours, the face of D-Day is or was a father, a brother, a grandfather, a nephew, or an uncle like my Uncle Carl. The years fly by; the tides roll in and out on those hallowed beaches of northern France; yet something remains across the decades.
It is that virtue and sacrifice are not hereditary; they are hard-earned under difficult circumstances. I visited my Uncle Carl’s grave with my dad a few days ago. It is very peaceful there. We thanked God for men like him, and for the priceless freedom they sacrificed so profoundly to secure.
In 1994, President Ronald Reagan delivered at Pointe du Hoc the greatest speech of his presidency. Standing before him were members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who had scaled those cliffs. Reagan’s remarks that day captured the essence of why we all go back to Normandy and will for generations hence: “Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.” Just so.