It was quiet on the beautiful beach, except for the strong wind and the large waves. No children building sand castles. No teenagers flirting. No families having picnics. But hundreds of people were there. We were there on Omaha Beach, Normandy, one of the beaches where landings took place on June 6, 1994, “D-Day.” We were there, as someone noted, with “respect, remembrance and reverence.”
It happened that my wife and I were there on Sept. 11. We arrived just as Hans Hooker, superintendent of the Normandy American Cemetery, was about to read a brief proclamation for President Barack Obama. The mixture of sadness, gratitude and respect we felt are impossible to convey for heroes of the 1940s, and for those of our generation.
No movie I’ve seen, no book I’ve read prepared me for the awesome experience on the Normandy beaches that we visited. We started in the small town of Arromanches, while British and American creativity and innovation produced a floating harbor, wharf, and causeway allowing thousands of tons of material to be unloaded and brought to shore. It was the first time anything like this large had been created, anywhere in the world.
Several signs in shops recognized that people from all over the world, including the Allied countries, come to visit. “Welcome to our liberators,” the signs proclaimed.
We also visited Omaha Beach, which thousands of Americans gave their lives to help preserve our freedom. There are no shops there. There’s “just” a huge American cemetery with more than 9,000 graves, and an extremely well done museum. Together, they produce memories, and time for us to reflect.
One soldier, a private Harry Parley, recalled, “As our boat touched the sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.” You look up at the cliffs, you walk by the guns that boomed that day, and its’ astonishing. The courage of these soldiers is overwhelming.
Reading books about D-Day, it’s clear that Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower was a genius at keeping together a constantly contentious coalition. He had to deal with huge egos of people like Charles DeGaulle, George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and others. He had to reconcile the sometimes conflicting advice and demands of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and others.
Despite enormous losses, the Allies succeeded. Together, they overcame great evil.
So one of the lessons was a reminder about what can be accomplished when people work together. But there’s much, much more.
There are thousands of stories of heroism from young people, far from home and family. A film at the Omaha Beach Museum referred to those who did not come home, and ended this way: “They gave their futures to insure ours. In the final analysis, nothing could be more profound.”
Someone asked if I enjoyed the day. No. But as another visitor explained, “It was stirring.” I also found and find myself asking, “What am I doing to honor their memory, and to make the best possible use of the gifts of life, liberty and freedom that they helped secure?”
Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org