Octo Observations: Remembering D-Day

We Americans are spoiled. We are used to having most everything we want. We have roofs over our heads, we have well stocked refrigerators, and we have closets filled with clothes for all seasons. We are free to come and go as we please… driving cars, riding public transportation or even peddling bikes for exercise and enjoyment. We are privileged. We are richly blessed. Our unemployment numbers are lower than they have been in decades. We can vote as we wish, worship (or not) wherever we want. Our children are educated, either in public or private schools. Some are homeschooled. Our lives are full of good options.

As a child born at the beginning of WWII, slightly before Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, I have vivid memories of very different times. I remember rationing. I remember the day my mother dropped a coveted bag of sugar on the kitchen floor. It broke, and she burst into tears. I remember watching her mix a packet of a powdery orange substance into “butter,” and thinking that it looked yucky. I remember my father teaching me the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, as I stood with my hand over my heart. I remember Victory Gardens, paper drives, jumping on tin cans to flatten them. I remember the day my dad spoke on the telephone to his sister’s only son, Johnny. Later he was killed as his fighter plane was shot down over Europe. I remember my father sobbing. Yes, WWII is indelible in my mind as it is for all of us grandparents, great grandparents. I remember air raid drills; I remember my father explaining the meaning of little flags bearing either blue or gold stars displayed in neighbors’ front door windows. I remember cheers of relief and jubilation when WWII ended……in Europe and then in the Pacific. I remember our family excitement when my father bought a new car to replace our very tired old automobile. It was a maroon colored Buick. It was shiny. It felt wonderful.

France Normandy June 6 2011 – Graves of soldiers who died during the military operation in 1944 during the landing of the Allies in Normandy.

As D-Day approaches, it is gratifying to see TV specials reminding Americans of the Normandy landing by our brave soldiers and allies. It is timely that our leaders stop their busy schedules to pay homage to those who fought valiantly and those who lost their lives. This past Sunday, there was a marvelous supplement in our local paper devoted to D-Day, the 75th Anniversary. It is called “Remembering the Battle that Won the War.” I have devoured every page…and am saving it to share with each of our grandchildren. Original, untouched pictures depict not only the young soldiers preparing for battle, but reveal their grim, determined faces. 

There is a website with much more about D-DAY history. Please go to the website for the National World War II Museum, which links to personal stories of those men who lived through the horrors of D-Day, and who have shared vivid personal documentation…landing on Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach and Gold Beach. On Sunday afternoon, I watched a riveting 2010 interview with Senator Daniel Inouye, Japanese-American born and raised in Hawaii. For over an hour he told his story of being an 18 year-old volunteer assigned to a Japanese-American unit, fighting in Italy. A gifted young man, he quickly became a platoon leader, earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze star, Medal of Honor, and posthumously, the Medal of Freedom. Hearing his story, his passion for our country, his determination to give back, well, I was completely awed. Senator Inouye’s love for America is an inspiration beyond description, representing only one of so many in his generation who gave selflessly and willingly: nearly losing his life, while losing his right arm.

I loved Senator Inouye’s recollection of seeing his good buddy Bob Dole in an army hospital overseas. “What are you going to do when you get home, Bob?” asked Inouye. “I am going to run for county office, then state office, then national office. I want to give my life to serving our country.” You may remember that Senator Dole, now in his mid-nineties, served Kansas for dozens of years as a member of the Senate, ran unsuccessfully for President against Bill Clinton. Although currently wheelchair bound, he remains quick-witted,  spunky and patriotic. The fact these two gentlemen shared a life-long friendship, belonged to different political parties, and served not only our country in the military, but our government is a beautiful story. (They also helped build the fantastic National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which is a must to visit if you are in the area.)  If only our leaders today shared the same kind of mutual respect, I would be less concerned for our grandchildren’s futures.

The men and women who fought WWII are becoming scarce. Our older son attended a Memorial Day parade in his Connecticut town last week. He reported this year there were fewer WWII vets; he knows that each year the number will continue to dwindle. As a child, we took him and his siblings to our own Connecticut town Memorial Day parades, where he recalls a few WWI vets leading the group. Now, they are all gone. What will happen when all our WWII military folks are dead? Will our grandchildren have Memorial Day parades to attend? Will our little ones be taught the horrors of the Holocaust or what happened at Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge? Even now, fewer and fewer American text books tell the whole story of that awful, yet incredibly courageous era. 

The other night with two other couples, all our very good friends, we  gathered for dinner at a lovely outdoor restaurant. As we talked, sharing wine and the perfect weather, our Hungarian born Jewish friends told previously unknown stories of their early years. The husband “Peter” was only five when he and his parents were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. He remembers so many details, which he says are forever etched in his mind. “If I tell you some stories, I will weep.” We did not press him. His beloved wife, eight years his junior, was born in 1946 to dear friends of his parents.  Both couples were given choices as to where to migrate after surviving the camp. Their bond of friendship paired their only children for life. These miraculous survivors chose Canada, and “Margaret” said she remembers well, as an eight-year old, staying alone in the family apartment while her parents went to work.  She was told to keep the door locked, to speak to no one, and to walk to and from school alone. Since she only spoke Hungarian, she had to learn both French and English quickly. She did, she survived, and she and her husband never take anything for granted. They have worked hard, earned college degrees, done very well, and have co-authored a book “just for the family” about their childhoods. How many of us know a survivor of Auschwitz? Life in the USA is a miracle truly treasured by them.

Barbed wire detail at Pointe-du-Hoc memorial, Normandy, France, where the Rangers climbed the cliffs during D-Day, WWII

June 6th marks the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. In September of 2014 my husband and I were lucky enough to take a WWII remembrance trip from Belgium to Berchtesgaden, Germany. A few years earlier, we visited the beaches of Normandy, including Pointe du Hoc. We saw the German bunkers with their gunsights trained on Rangers who climbed the cliffs from the beaches. We saw the American Cemetery with its rows and rows of perfectly aligned white crosses, and we read the names on many of them. Tears filled our eyes, and our hearts beat fast with pride and with gratitude. Would that every American could experience the profound humility that the sights of Normandy and the American Cemetery evoke.

As one old soldier recently said on Memorial Day, when his young interviewer commented, “You are an American hero.” “No,” replied the dear man, “I am merely a survivor. The heroes did not come home.” God Bless America. May we treat Her and those who bravely serve(d) Her with respect. Treat Her with the love and dignity that surpasses all evil intent from any source. “Freedom is not Free.”

All photos Bigstock

Top photo: Colleville Sur Mere, France – September 19 2017: Les Braves Memorial metal sculpture at the Omaha Beach war memorial in Normandy France honoring soldiers who died during the D Day invasion

Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn. Click to buy on Amazon.