Message from Remember My Service President, Sharlene Wells Hawkes
Over the weekend, my 21-year-old son, Jacob, suggested we watch Saving Private Ryan again. We did, and those first minutes don’t get any easier to watch, no matter how many times you see the movie. It’s real. But this is an important movie to my son. When he was 10, the whole family went backpacking through Europe and we spent one day at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. When we returned to the States, Jacob really wanted to see the movie that we had talked about, which I thought was way too graphic for him that age. He didn’t give up though—he really wanted to understand why that cemetery meant so much to us. After he saw the movie, he told me, “I want to go back there again,” because this time, he would understand.
So when he was 15, just the two of us went over. This time we spent three days in Normandy, exploring Sword Beach, Utah Beach, Saint–Mere-Eglise, Pointe du Hoc, and, of course, Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. After we spent a few hours in the visitors center, and walking all over the sacred grounds that include 38 sets of brothers buried together, we found the path that led down to Omaha Beach through the thick foliage (I understand that path has now been closed). As we neared the beach, still working through dense brush, I heard unexpected sounds of laughter, and children squealing as they played in the surf. I was surprised—I guess I thought that Omaha Beach should be treated like hallowed ground just like the cemetery. “Shouldn’t the families be more respectful here?” I asked our guide. She smiled and simply said, “That is the sound of freedom. That’s why so many men died here.” We wandered on the beach for a while, picking up small rocks to take this piece of costly history home with us. Jacob filled a small bottle with sand, just like he had seen one soldier do in the movie.
I asked Jacob this week what he remembered most about that day, and he said the beach, the bunkers, the cemetery with all those names on the wall of the missing, and the huge bronze statue, the “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Everything about that day is burned into his memory and mine. After we left Normandy, we travelled to Krakow, Poland, to spend a day at Auschwitz, where the reason and need for D-Day was horrifically illustrated and proven.
That was an unforgettable experience to share with my son, and I share those memories here because in about a week, on June 6, we will all be honoring and remembering one of the greatest military achievements of all time, and the greatest amphibious invasion in history: the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
In 2007, Secretary Bob Gates spoke at the American Cemetery. Following are some excerpts:
On June 5th, 1944, a mass of men and ships the likes of which the world had never seen set sail from across the Channel. An intelligence officer later described the awesome sight. “The vast machinery of invasion had started to move, inevitably and relentlessly. It was exhilarating, glorious, and heartbreaking.”
For those who were here, the next day, June 6th, unfolded as if it were a lifetime. Men who had only recently felt the warmth of their families now felt the frigid waters of the English Channel and the lonely sands of a war-torn, windswept beachhead. Men who had just a few months earlier been boys in the midst of adolescence suddenly found themselves traversing a warren of lethal obstacles on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
Here, at what came to be known as “Bloody Omaha,” the allied offensive faltered and almost failed. Bad intelligence, bad weather, bad luck—they all conspired against the landing forces.
In its horror, the scene was breathtaking. One GI said that the first men on the beach tumbled “just like corncobs off of a conveyor belt.” Another described Omaha as nothing more than “the dead and dying and the people coming in to replace them.” That day, the blood of the dead and the dying turned the seas red.
We build memorials like this to remind us of the past. So that successive generations will know the enormous cost of freedom. So that our children and grandchildren will never forget the stories of those who fought here. So that the passage of time and the thinning of their ranks will never dim the glory of their deeds.
One of our key RMS team members, Elise Norton, and her husband, Matt, are actually heading over to Normandy this week to attend the ceremonies in person. I’m so jealous. They have a great reason to be there: Matt’s grandfather, John Norton, was a paratrooper on D-Day, and later became a three-star general. “I’m looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere, surrounded by veterans and this significant history,” says Elise. “I especially want to walk on Omaha and Utah beaches. This is important to our family, let alone our country.”
If you want to know about D-Day events in your area, please visit this website that has a massive list of events taking place: www.dday-anniversary.com
The last thing I saw as I walked out of the visitors center in 2013 was this quote on the wall that beautifully emphasizes America’s cause-driven fight for right:
“If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: all we asked…was enough…soil in which to bury our gallant dead.”
— General Mark W. Clark
I close with a shout-out to my family’s WWII veterans: my dad, Robert Earl Wells (still walking briskly every day for an hour at 91 years old—he was in flight training when the war ended); Uncle Walter Walser (Army Air Corps); Uncle Roy Walser (Army Air Corp, a Pearl Harbor survivor, and just recently died at age 98); Uncle Stan Walser (Navy Air Corp, 95 when he died), and my Uncle-in-law Bill Clark (a member of the Flying Tigers who was shot down and evaded capture).
Please remember to tune into the news on June 6—you won’t want to miss the “D-Day Squadron” flyover of dozens of C-47 Dakota transports. It won’t be the 800 or so aerial armada that filled the skies 75 years ago, but it will be an impressive reminder!