D-Day 77 years later

I can’t look at the iconic photos of the D-Day landings without thinking of how young those men were. The average age of those who landed on the five beaches in Operation Overlord was 20. Twenty years old. Think of a twenty year-old you have known. That’s who they were.

We had the privilege of visiting Omaha Beach in June 2014. It was a beautiful bright, warm summer day. I stood there trying to imagine those men, barely more than boys, running up that beach straight into a virtual hail of machine gun fire. The first wave of soldiers on Omaha suffered 90% casualties. That means that 9 of 10 were unable to bear arms within seconds after they began their sprint towards liberating Europe. A haunting and humbling fact.

I had promised a friend that I would bring home some sand from Omaha Beach for his 90 year-old father in-law, who had landed there on D-day 70 years earlier and survived. I almost forgot, but I grabbed an empty Coke can and filled it halfway with sand. Later I sent it to my friend with the label “OMAHA BEACH JUNE 2014.” I had no idea what that small gesture would mean to his father in-law. My friend never sees me without thanking me.

Never forget.

I should add that the invasion was multi-national. The Allies committed 39 divisions to the Battle of Normandy: 22 American, 12 British, three Canadian, one Polish, and one French, totalling over a million troops. Hitler ticked off the wrong countries.

I was privileged to know 2 D-Day vets and call them friends.

Henry Martin was a sort of extra grandpa to my oldest son. He and his wife always looked for him at church and other events to dote on him.

Henry landed at Juno Beach with the Canadian Scottish Regiment. He would often tell the story of how things unfolded that day. “I looked around the boat and found the biggest guy. I got right behind him and as soon as the doors swung open I just yelled RUN RUN RUN and we ran as fast we could through all the the gun fire to the sea wall.” They rested at the sea wall for a bit before fighting their way into the town. Later that night they found some wine in the basement of an empty house and got drunk. I think they earned it. Henry was later wounded during the closing of the Falaise gap, a battle he did not like to talk about.

Earl Derricott was a wireless operator on a Halifax bomber. They flew numerous missions through intense flak and anti aircraft fire that day. He remarked about the sheer number of ships and boats in the Channel that it seemed like you could walk all the way across stepping from one boat to the next.

One thing that has always stuck out to me with both of these gentlemen, my grandfather, and other veterans is that they always passed off what they did in the war as " we were just doing our job". Truly remarkable.

This is Henry as a young man during the war.

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I always think of the paratroopers. As the famous quote said, and I am paraphrasing, all watched the sunset and many didn’t see it rise again.

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Hard for me to watch this without getting a little emotional, especially at the beginning.

Here are the lyrics to the song that accompanies this video:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

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They were so young.

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I remember seeing Saving Private Ryan the first time in the movie theater and there are a couple old vets in front of me who were calling out the unit patches and such. Don’t know if they were there (or if they’re still alive) but it was awesome.
I do think it’s one of the better war movies as well.

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Because of three critical decisions I faced, and how much I agonized over them, I remember being 20 years old, and i can tell you i was very young and very naive.

I have not idea how I would have faced what those boys went through.

I have an old friend (94) who was previously a neighbor, now living in an assisted living facility in soCal. We talk frequently over Skype on a small computer I setup and sent to him for such purposes. He fought in Europe shortly after the invasion until the end of the war. He’s told me many stories of his experiences and always recounts how lucky he felt NOT to have been assigned the D-Day invasion. He also recounts how ill-prepared mentally, and young he and all his buddies were, and how lucky he feels to this day to have survived.

I’d like to think I would have demonstrated the same level of courage as he, but truth be told, I’ll never really know.

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I hope we never have to find out if we have that level of courage.

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There are two places that I have felt an obligation to visit. Normandy and theTwin Tower Museum. I did both in the last few years and experienced great reverence in both places. My father arrived in France in December 1945 and later fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He did not talk at all about his experiences. I gave my parents my box set of Band of Brothers and after watching the first episode, my mom met me at the door and gave it back, explaining that my dad could not watch it. That he and others could return and live normal, healthy lives is remarkable.

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Henry would have been 22 years old on D Day

A man I knew well in church was a Marine in WWII and landed at Guadalcanal. 60,000 Marines landed, 7,100 were killed. He would not talk about it. It took him years even to admit he had been there. Once I was talking to our Boy Scouts about Medal of Honor recipients and he told me afterwards, “There were so many more who did things like that, but nobody saw them.” At his funeral the Marines were there and played “Taps.” I wept tears of appreciation and gratitude.

Henry said that they only thing missing from the beach landing scene was the smell. He said that even though it was Omaha beach that was depicted it was a very similar experience on Juno Beach.

My dad’s father was killed in France. My mom’s father served with the Canadian engineers as far as I know. He rarely spoke about the war generally saying “oh you don’t want to know about that”. About the only thing I know is that he helped build a bridge in Holland. I presume it was connected with Operation Market Garden. I have finally been able to request his military records and hopefully will know more at some point.

Here’s an interesting perspective from an email one of my partners sent out this morning.

Today is the 77th anniversary of D-Day, the day on which American and Allied armies stormed the beaches of Normandy with the goal of liberating France and Europe from Nazi occupation. Over two thousand young American soldiers perished and thousands more were wounded on those beaches as the allied armies successfully established a beachhead from which to begin the defeat of Nazi Germany. The passage of time has dulled the memory of D-Day and it has steadily faded into history. Many of you may not have given this day much thought.

For me, this day forms a critical part of my life, even though it occurred well before I was born. In the summer of 1944, a large part of my family was living in Paris and had been placed on a list of individuals scheduled for deportation to the Auschwitz death camp where they would have been murdered. The successful Allied landing in Normandy prevented their deportation and saved their lives. Had the American and allied soldiers not been successful, my family would have been exterminated and I would never have existed.

There is nothing inevitable about historical events; they depend upon human decisions and actions. The decision to liberate Europe and the enormous sacrifice made by American soldiers in battling Nazi armies represents a glorious milestone in the history of mankind and of our nation. I am immensely grateful for the role of the United States in liberating France and saving the lives of so many, including many members of my family. The passage of the years has only heightened my sense of gratitude.

I believe that this anniversary of D-Day should remind each of us of the amazing role that the United States has played in modern history, serving as a beacon of freedom and opportunity for so many. The fulfilling life that I have been blessed to lead would never have happened but for the sacrifice of thousands of Americans who gave their lives so that I might live. I am also grateful to this country for providing a haven to my family. I hope that each of us will take a moment to reflect on the momentous events of 77 years ago today.

May the memory of the young soldiers who suffered and the many who perished on this day in 1944 on the beaches of Normandy continue to be a blessing for generations to come and may we, as a nation, remain worthy of their noble sacrifice.

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This story is a nice ending to this year’s remembrances.

This is timely. Yesterday I saw that the little village where I grew up in Canada and where my dad still lives just received a grant to build a cenotaph to honor those who fell in WWI and WWII. I was always puzzled why there had never been a memorial built in the past. There was a nice scroll with the names written on it that hung in the school but no memorial. That is now being rectified and the 5 gentlemen who left that small village of a few hundred people at the time will ever be remembered for paying the ultimate sacrifice.

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