Sunday, June 6, 2010

Accidental Heroes

What had seemed like a beginning in the near daylight off the coast of Normandy in France, sixty-six years ago was actually the end, if you will, of the planning phase of Operation Overlord and years of planning from an embattled outpost, England, that had been left to fight on practically alone after the fall of France in June nearly four years earlier.

This time last week we were all talking about those 'who made the ultimate sacrifice' and 'who paid the ultimate price' and here we are today commemorating an event that marked the beginning of the end of the murderous darkness and mayhem into which first Europe and ultimately the entire world descended that resulted in the deaths of over sixty million people, marked the end of the British Empire, helped redraw the maps of Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East and redivided much of the world into communist and non-communist spheres of influence.

The personages and personalities we always associate with this event are enormous and epic and their fame is well-deserved but I found an old clip, its source made me smile, that focused more, and more accurately, on the hundreds of thousands of men leading lives quiet desperation, who did what they were trained to do, when they were trained to do it, and thought in nothing larger than one step increments.

They struggled and died by the tens of thousands wading ashore from the landing craft to the beach, getting off the beachhead to an embankment for cover, rejoining a unit and moving forward, a footfall at a time, until the trickle from the beach became a torrent and that torrent became a flood facing murderous opposition from men who in many respects were their twins, but were on the other side for reasons that had as much to do with accidents of geography and birth as with ideology and politics.

Back in 1984 I had an opportunity with Bob 'The Human Sachtler' Garvin to retrace the assault on Normandy with a US Army unit who took their history very seriously. Bus loads of us, all living and stationed in Germany, arrived in considerably more style and comfort than the advance party in 1944 to discover every, or seemingly every, bar in the city limits of Normandy is called 6 Juin. At the bar (whose name you can guess) across from the church where a US paratrooper's chute had gotten snagged in the steeple and John Steele supposedly died in a hail of bullets from a Wehrmacht defender, spotlights illuminated the church top and a parachute still billowed as a human replica dangled and twisted from the rigging. As it turned out, he didn't die but was captured by the Germans only to escape and rejoin his unit.

Army chopper pilots are tough, hard cases, but even they softened when we toured Pointe du hoc where the US Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion achieved the impossible and it was but one brief moment in a non-stop amazing story of heroism that went on for weeks that summer as twelve allied nations, Australia, Canada, Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States pushed inland, driving back an enemy that had nearly half a decade to prepare for just such an attack but had failed to calculate the selflessness of the sacrifice that hundreds of thousands were willing to make so that generations of unborn could have the freedom to do as they wished, even if, too often, that freedom included ignoring the enormity of the sacrifice so many had made for them.

The beaches of Normandy are quite beautiful, if you don't mind looking at the remnants of the Mulberry Harbors that the Allies needed to use to stage reinforcements and supplies prior to the final assault on the beaches themselves. The seagulls and sandpipers run ahead of you, by just inches, often backwards staring up at you, the flightless sojourner, walking among the washing of the waves trying, and failing, to imagine the carnage and chaos that covered every inch of these beaches all those years ago.

Our final day there, we devoted to the Normandy American Cemetery, a beautifully sad or sadly beautiful island of peace and calm created to honor those who died for those whom they never met but whose lives were made possible by their sacrifice. Today, if only for a moment, think about those men and, in looking at the challenges you face in your life, resolve to make a difference as best as you can, in much the way that they did, alone and far from home and hearth on a beach half a world away.
-bill kenny

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