A reflection on an iconic battlefield, the World War II generation, and the sacrifices made by combat veterans today
The Allied landing never seemed real, like life rather than history or cinema, until I visited the Normandy American Cemetery Memorial. The grounds are a serene expanse of 9,387 graves. The monuments are austere, a simple white cross marking most plots, a Star of David marking others. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," I thought, and I felt gratitude toward the dead. Many were killed around my age. I was 21 at the time.
The cemetery sits atop a bluff that looks out at the English Channel. A path winds gently down to Omaha Beach, a windswept expanse as tranquil and calming as any seascape, its sweep strangely reminiscent of the Southern California beaches where I grew up surfing and playing Frisbee football. As clouds scrolled across the sky the sea showed spangled spots of sunlight one moment, but appeared dull gray the next. I stowed my shoes and socks by a piece of driftwood, rolled up my pant legs, and waded knee deep, turning only as the dying breakers lapped against my thighs.
The cliffs rose up before me: on June 6, 1944, men my age stood here, I thought, among mines laid so they'd be blown to bits. They trudged to the shore under machine gun fire, rushing across this impossibly wide beach, as Germans fired down on them from atop that bluff. Novels depict young men yearning for the glory of war, but I stood on my nation's most glorious battlefield unsure I'd have mustered the physical courage to step off those transports. I imagined myself braving enemy fire to drag a wounded friend away from German strafing. As easily, I imagined lurking like a coward behind the transport, pretending to be wounded as others rushed forward.