A tear welled up in Hal’s eye, a deep sadness etched across his face as he recalled the moment. Omaha Beach, the day after the D-Day invasion. Hal had been tasked by his company commander to go back down onto the beach and retrieve some equipment. A farm boy from Iowa now deep into his 60s, he shared this memory with me, his words below.
“It was a beautiful day — the sun was out, the sky blue, the water calm. But there on the sandy beach stretching out before me on down the beach were the bodies, the carnage from the day before. It was so peaceful and quiet and, and…” Hal’s voice trailed off into muted silence as he slowly shook his head, his emotions overwhelmed by that graphic, gripping image from 40 years earlier, still as real to him as the day he had experienced it. All gave some, some gave all.
If Memorial Day is about remembering the past sacrifices of our men and women in the military, Hal’s five minutes of emotional recall was the best and most real Memorial Day I’ve ever had. On that day in June of 1944 when Hal stood alone on the beach at Normandy — alone in the company of fallen comrades — I was five years old, my mother preparing me for kindergarten that fall.
I would be free to go to school, salute the American flag in the corner of our classroom, and sing “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” But only because, while all gave some, some did give all, making the ultimate sacrifice that allowed fathers to go to work, mothers care for their children — and kids like me go to school.
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The wars that purchased our freedom at the price of the blood and bravery of men and women we likely never knew were largely fought overseas. One hundred and thirty thousand American soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guardsmen and airmen are still there, buried under foreign soil or waters where they repelled an enemy intent on taking away the freedom we enjoy today. That’s “paying forward” like no other debt was or ever could be — their sacrifice measured starkly in numbers: 116,500 died in World War I; 405,300 in World War II, and another 101,000 in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The wars that purchased our freedom at the price of the blood and bravery of men and women we likely never knew were largely fought overseas.
But behind the numbers are the faces. An article about the USS Arizona on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor last December ran in several papers with a sketch of that massive ship sinking, a large grey cloud in the background. But only when you looked more closely at the sketch could you see that the cloud was composed of faces, perhaps a hundred or more, symbolizing the thousand-plus men who went to a watery grave that day and still lie entombed there.
Personalizing such faces makes Memorial Day deeper if you have the honor of being linked to someone who served. My link was remote — my parents bought our first house in Ohio from a man who lost two sons, his only children, on the Arizona. They were still teenagers, robbed of the rest of their lives that we might have ours free and clear.
And I also think about David Acheson and Jeffrey M. Wershow, both outstanding college leaders who left school to serve their country. David died at Gettysburg at age 23. He surely would have been a leader, likely a lawyer and judge like his father and grandfather, had he lived. And Jeff, who died in Iraq in 2003 at age 22, was nicknamed “the General” because of his confident and purposeful manner. He would have excelled in any field — had he only lived. These two fine young men and thousands more represent the true cost of war — what might have been.
Make this Memorial Day as personal as you can — by visiting a grave and leaving flowers, a flag, or a prayer; by asking a veteran, perhaps a family member or neighbor, to share what they’re willing to about their service experiences. My friend Hal, who has since passed away, gave me a rare gift by sharing a vivid memory of historic sacrifice for our country. “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Many did just that for the country they loved. May we never forget.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.