Another Memorial Day & […] still at war, decorating an ever-increasing number of graves. –Eleanor Roosevelt, Memorial Day 1944.
When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this, my dad was a 24 year-old farm boy from Minnesota living in Selsey, England, training for the great Allied invasion of France that would take place the next week on D-Day, June 6. My dad would hear his first shots fired in anger in the midst of some of the worst carnage of the entire war, on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, later aptly nicknamed “Bloody Omaha”.
The United States had a lot more graves to decorate after D-Day, and in the months to come, until WWII finally came to an end with unconditional surrender of Japan in August of 1945.
My dad has been gone for over twenty years now; his generation, the World War II generation, is almost gone now. The day we buried my father, there were enormous patches of open land at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery; when I went out there yesterday to visit mom and dad’s grave, I noticed that it is almost full. Soon there won’t be any veterans left to tell their stories about Omaha Beach, or The Battle of the Bulge, or the day their unit liberated Buchenwald, or Dachau, or one of the numerous sub-camps that lurked throughout Germany. It will be left to us, their children and grandchildren, to keep their stories alive, to make sure their legacies are passed on to new generations so that their heroism is never forgotten.
But will anyone want to listen? Are people listening now? I’m not entirely sure. And that makes my heart hurt…because I know the price my father paid, not just by giving his country the best years of his life, but in blood, in sweat and tears, in heartache and grief and flashbacks and lifelong nightmares.
What these men did mattered, then and for all time. They saved the world from a terrible, incomprehensible evil. As President Bill Clinton said of the gathered veterans in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the year after my dad died:
They may be older now, and grayer now,
and their ranks are growing thin.
But when these men were young,
these men saved the world.
They did. They really did. Guys like my dad never have thought of themselves as heroes, but that’s exactly what they were.