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An old story worth repeating

Posted: June 5, 2014 8:45 a.m.
Updated: June 6, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Seventy years ago today, American soldiers stormed beaches in the Normandy province of France, beginning the painful and deadly blitz that would bring down the Nazis and preserve freedom in Europe.

We’re losing our World War II veterans. The youngest ones are now in their late 80s, and they’re dying at an average of one every two minutes.

As chronicled in a newspaper story, a group of South Carolina veterans recently traveled to Normandy to view the beaches they helped liberate.

Most WWII vets aren’t able to make the trip anymore; physical limitations have overtaken them.

But on this day when we mark a sacred occasion, it’s fitting to look back. I told you this story once before, but here on June 6, it’s worth repeating the words of a friend who had just returned from seeing the beaches where the ocean ran with blood so long ago.

“Before going to Normandy,” my friend said,  “we had visited Bastogne, Belgium, key town in the Battle of the Bulge, and had been engaged there by the little cafes and bars that still had so much World War II memorabilia.

“And then we headed to Normandy, but before we visited the beaches -- the battlefields -- we went into Bayeux, the nearby town where we were staying, and in the cathedral there we ran into a group of American veterans, most of them in wheelchairs.

“We went over and thanked them for their service, and it was very emotional because the youngest World War II vets are in their late 80s now and most are unable to travel.

“And then we went to the beaches. I had heard so much about D-Day, but standing on Omaha Beach and gazing up into the eye of those German pillboxes -- gun emplacements -- on the hillside was incredibly moving. It was hard to imagine what those young Americans must have been feeling as they hit shore and endured the withering crossfire from those big guns.

“More than 2,000 of them died there that morning. We had hired a guide, and he detailed the entire landing and the immense challenges and unfavorable conditions the Americans faced.

“As dramatic as the battle sites were, the American military cemetery was overwhelming.  It’s just impossible to explain its impact. You stand there and gaze out, row upon row, acre upon acre of white crosses.

“The land is American soil, given to this country by France, shortly after the war, and it is perfectly manicured … those crosses, and an occasional Star of David, nearly as far as the eye can see.

“There’s a reflecting pool, and a piece of statuary symbolizing the exuberance of American youth, and you can almost feel the bravery emanating up through the soil.

“Thousands of graves, including 38 sets of brothers buried side by side. And down below, the beaches, now so peaceful, and it’s hard to imagine the chaos of so many years ago.

“That cemetery is all so … it’s all so perfect until you’re jarred into reality about why it’s there, and you think about the families of those men -- their parents, their wives, their children who would never see them again.

“Another American visitor was close by, and he murmured, ‘It’s all so sobering,’ and that was an apt description. Sobering.

“And I recalled the Parisians who have such disdain for Americans now, and I thought, ‘They should make every resident of Paris come to this cemetery every few years simply to remember what these men did for them and for their country -- their France -- and for the world.’

“If they did that, maybe they would see things differently.”

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