D-Day was the strike that began to unravel the Nazi regime that had overrun Europe. My trip was more personal, since my father had participated in the assault as a combat engineer, landing with the first wave of troops that morning.
This trip had been long anticipated and planned. In my youth I was aware of my father's war service and his presence in this major assault. But he wouldn't talk much about what he did. He brought back a box full of pictures, a few ribbons and a mind full of memories he kept locked away from all of us.
Imagining the horror
It was not until a few years ago that I accidentally heard a story about that morning of a fellow soldier from our hometown who died in my father's arms, a victim of a German machine gun. Dad always said Charley Dalton was the one "Cape boy" in his unit who didn't return home. In the first minutes of his first battle, Dad saw how helpless one can be at the moment of death on the battlefield. But he had to keep moving forward through the sand and the surf. Anyone who stayed on that beach was a dead man.
Standing on Omaha Beach, I tried to imagine the horror he walked into that morning. They say Steven Spielberg captured the moment in his movie Saving Private Ryan—everything, that is, except the smell of burning bodies. That my dad survived the carnage I count as no small miracle.
"Bloody Omaha" was only one of the landing beaches for the Allied troops. What all those men did that day, and in the months that followed till the end of the war, was a great sacrifice. Thousands gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives and future. The survivors who returned home were forever changed by their war experiences.
That generation has been called "the greatest generation." They certainly made a great sacrifice against a monstrous tyranny that threatened the freedom of the world. World War II continues to be studied 65 years after its conclusion for the impact on the world we know. The men and women who served are owed a debt of gratitude by all of us.
The war's impact on families
When I think about the war's impact on my family, I marvel. In addition to my father, I had seven uncles who served in the military. They all survived and returned home. I grew up with those men playing a role in my formative years. Now, I often wonder how they were shaped by their wartime experience. The ships, tanks and units in which they served were finely tuned weapons of war. They were trained to kill. They watched their buddies get killed and blown apart. They were not the same for the experience, and they returned home as different men. Their children, my cousins, were impacted by their war experience.
Bruce Catton once wrote about the Civil War veterans he knew as a youth growing up in southern Michigan. These old men with white beards had "once, ages ago, been everywhere and seen everything, and nothing that happened to them thereafter meant anything much.
"All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after that had simply been a process of waiting for death, which did not frighten them much—they had seen it inflicted in the worst possible way on boys who had not bargained for it. They had once been lifted beyond themselves by an experience which perhaps was all the more significant because it was imperfectly understood" (The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln's Army, p. xi).
I believe this describes my father. I believe it describes many veterans of war. When I first read it years ago, it helped me understand a lot about the home where I grew up. Understanding creates a settled mind. I understood my dad and what his generation did for me and our generation of baby boomers.
Standing that day on Omaha Beach, I said a silent prayer of gratitude that he survived and that I could return with my son and grandson to pay our respect. Three descendants of a veteran of Omaha Beach returned on their own pilgrimage.
Picturing the end of the futility of war
Our trip came after we had observed the biblical Feast of Tabernacles in Lisbon, Portugal. This festival looks forward to the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth as Messiah and King of Kings. It is the prophesied period of peace and restoration of all the things foretold by every prophet, including Jesus Christ.
While a visit to a battlefield after such a festival may seem incongruous, it really isn't. The futility of war is brought home all the more vividly on the fields of sacrifice.
Seeing the scenes of destruction and the graves of the fallen reminds us that no war has brought lasting peace. The death of a nation's youth leaves deep emotional scars that never heal. At the American Cemetery in Normandy the fallen soldiers lay beneath the white crosses "row on row." The graves are arranged with the markers facing the English Channel. The dead are "looking" toward America—toward home. These men never got to raise their children or reunite with their families. They gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Seeing such a sight makes me pray "thy kingdom come" more fervently. It makes me appreciate the truth of the Bible's promise of a time when nations will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).
Omaha Beach has returned to a place of serene calm. The remnants of the battle are silent reminders to those who visit that freedom is precious, never to be taken for granted. WNP