8 YEARS AGO – RONALD REAGAN, 60th D-DAY, A Press Pool Report


Ronald Reagan passed away eight years ago — June 5, 2004.  I was in France that day as a member of the official press pool to the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, probably the last reunion the aged veterans from that momentous landing June 6, 1944 would enjoy in great numbers.

A great American leader passed on, and the last of the men from WWII, men we would never forget, were leaving us at over 1,000 a day.  My feelings of gratitude for men such as these, including Ronald Reagan, were never higher, except when I held my dying father’s hand and told him his friends from the war were waiting for him. The sparkle in his dimming eyes told me all I needed to know.

I first sent this report out as a member of the “Official US Press Pool” at Normandy, France on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. Still relevant, I’m happy to say Howie Beach, is still alive, well, and just finished his memories now available on AMAZON.COM: Titled: “THE PRIVATE WAR OF HOWIE BEACH.”  A “must read” for anyone interested in the soldier’s eyewitness account of D-Day through VE Day.

James Michael Pratt – Official US Press Pool
Normandy June 6, 2004

As a member of the official US Press Pool to the multi-national sixtieth anniversary ceremonies commemorating the Allied D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, I had the privilege of witnessing a never-to-be-repeated celebration of honor and courage at the battlefield locations in Normandy, France.

The war was nearly five years old for our British and other allies by 1944. The gathering of old warriors in their eighties and nineties said it all. They came because they knew this would be the last time in their lives such a large congregation of nations and people would pay them and their fallen comrades homage. We, the sons and daughters, came for the same reason.

My father’s age of old-young men, are leaving us at more than 1000 veterans a day. They take their history of war, love, and bravery with them to a place their comrades who died in arms have preceded them to. I miss Dad, a man who entered Rome, Italy with the victorious Allies on June 4, 1944, 2 days before the famous Normandy landings. I am growing in awareness at how much I will miss all of them. So I stumble a bit at conveying the depth of reverence and awe I felt among the 10,000 crosses so elegantly and poignantly witnessing to us of young men’s sacrifice.

Equally in awe were hundreds of the aged veterans, like Howie Beach, 79 years old, from La Habra, Cailifornia. I was privileged to receive an oral history lesson of his experience of coming ashore and then 11 months of fighting hell that followed. In childlike candor he seemed the young soldier asking me, the gray haired wise old man, this question: “Do you think I can find them?”

He teared up, and I got a lump in my throat as he added, “I lost seven good friends in France and Belgium and I want to find them. Do you think I can find where they are buried?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Your friends can be found, Howie.”

“Oh,” was his simple reply as he searched the meaning of sixty years having passed.

“You are 19 years old again, aren’t you?” I asked.

“What?” he asked with moist eyes.

“You aren’t 79 today. You are 19.” I knew that the recognition of this first trip back to France – one totally done in peace, and not carrying a rifle – was slowly dawning on Howie, and confusion of 60 years of time so compressed now mixed with memories so startlingly fresh.

“How do you know that…how I feel?” he responded with surprise.

“Everyone feels the same way. We are eternally young inside, like the young soldier friends of yours. They haven’t aged, and in some ways, neither have you,” I replied.

“That’s right! It is just like it was all yesterday. I don’t understand it. I shut it out for so many years and now it’s as if I am there again and it is all fresh; fresh in my mind, I mean.”

This was Howie’s moment to teach and my opportunity to learn.Howie opened up and I took notes on the spontaneous oral history lesson. I didn’t need a movie screen; his eyes shared the scenes of comradeship and horror of battle as if it played out just days ago.

Howie Beach was one of many men, American, British, French, and Canadian who I met on travels for one week in June to honor on film and in the written word American Dads who stormed on to these beaches in an effort to save the planet from self-created demons and evil. These men had a call, and all recounted how they felt quite ordinary then, but part of something bigger.

“It was a mission,” Howie reminded us. “We were part of millions in uniform. Most of us figured it was a matter of time before we were dead men anyway, so we fought like mad.”

Norman Akers, a British soldier traveling to Normandy to be at a reunion of fellow British D-Day survivors was with his daughter, when I met him. He showed us an original photo of his brother’s shrapnel torn helmet lying upon a fresh mound of earth where he lay buried. The custom of the British was to immediately bury their soldiers where they fell. Later he was crossing into Belgium and then Holland during Operation Market Garden and came upon a bridge named “Akers Bridge.” He inquired and found out from a British officer, “Oh yes. That would be named for your brother. He was quite the hero, you know.”

Norman Akers looked proud, wistful, and sad all at the same time as his 83 year-old eyes strained at the graying photo of the bridge he was sharing with us; the sign posted as “Akers Bridge,” and what it meant to him to “carry on” as the surviving Akers brother of a war that consumed so many hundreds of thousands of British sons. “It seems like yesterday now,” he whispered. “I can’t understand why, but it is all so clear again.”

I thanked him for his service for us. Our British allies lost nearly one million sons beside our American forces in bringing victory to the cause. These two men both testified that they were not uncommon of other men of their time. They think of their dead brothers and comrades as the true heroes. But they survived to remind us of the cost; that FREEDOM WASN’T FREE. And now those “common men” of yesterday remind us of just how much one good man can do to make a difference in the world.

Our French hosts were generous in their regard for their American friends who gave their lives to liberate their country. American flags hung from the windows of Normandy countryside homes along with French, British, and Canadian flags.

A proud people, sometimes with disputes regarding American foreign policy, they lacked no gratitude for their hero “soldats Americain” who waded from chest deep water into withering enemy fire on D- Day beaches. More than 50,000 French civilians would also end up surrendering their lives to bombs made by Germans, and the Allies as they lived in the midst of warfare during those first terrible summer months of 1944.

The city I stayed in, Caen, France, is as charitable today in her regard for American, British, and Canadian sacrifice as it was 60 years before when nearly 95% of the buildings were destroyed and thousands of inhabitants were killed or wounded during the several weeks of fighting there between Allied and German forces.

Somehow everyone gathering during the week ending June 6th 2004 to honor our dead and living veterans of the great conflict understood that with the sacrifice, with something given up and lost, the pendulum of justice swung fully to the opposite direction offering a precious but sacred blood-stained gain in return.

In Howie Beach’s life the loss was friends and the innocence he had known as a teenager when he was called upon to become a killer of men. What he gained was a profound depth of appreciation for freedom, a love beyond measure for comrades, and a decency he would live the remainder of his life in spite of carnage and terror he experienced.

In Norman Aker’s life it was the same, plus the sacrifice of his beloved older brother. For French men and woman it was often their homes being destroyed along with family members being sacrificed for their final freedom.

One week earlier I had the honor of speaking to thirty wounded Marine’s at the invitation of personal friend at Camp Lejeune, NC. Now home from Iraq and Afghanistan’s battle fields, these men had gathered to listen to the Chaplain’s instructions on how to transform from warrior to peace-time dad and husband.

The Marines wondered aloud if we, the American citizen, appreciated them; if we cared. Many are husbands and dads, doing simply what they know their fathers and grandfathers did in World War Two, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts.

“Will the American people be grateful?” one asked. “Will they let us finish our job?” another questioned. “I used to take my family for granted,” added a young staff sergeant. “I used to act like a drill sergeant to my young son. But when I got back from Iraq, and some of my friends didn’t, I just looked into his eyes and when he said ‘Daddy…and I…’” His throat closed tight on his own words. He wiped at the tears. “I’m not the same man,” he began once more. “I’ll never be the same man. I will never take my family or this country for granted again.”

Gratitude, love, honor. I witnessed these with our current crop of heroes, some Marines who want nothing from us but understanding and respect. And then on June 6th 2004, in an overflowing abundance of appreciation on French soil, hallowed and made sacred by men who died and also lived to tell their tales, I understood what soldiers of every time and conflict may have wondered when they asked themselves, “Will they remember me back home?”

I imagined in my mind’s eye a beneficent Creator offering an approval for a collective gathering of the spirits of the fallen whose bodies lay buried in the Normandy sod. Dads, sons, brothers, heroes all – I imagined another cerebration taking place near us; the dead among the ten thousand crosses, witnessing an earnest heartfelt homage being paid to them.

“Do they remember me back home?” I thought I heard whispered.

I knew the answer and whispered back: “Yes soldier, we do remember. We haven’t forgotten you. And we never will.”

James Michael Pratt – June 6, 2004

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