Remembering Soldiers Who Saved The Planet
A 60th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT – Re-Post
James Michael Pratt – Official US Press Pool
From the American Military Cemetery, 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 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.
The speeches of the French and American Presidents, contained solemn and spiritual tones while at the same time spoke to the ideals of the common-man-soldier who made it all possible for us to enjoy what we have. My father’s age of old-young men, are leaving us at more than 3,500 veterans a day and soon will take their history of war, love, and bravery with them. I miss Dad, and 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 wonder at the historic review were hundreds of the aged veterans, like Howie Beech, 79 years old, from La Habra, California.
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. “There are seven American Cemeteries throughout Europe. The Cemetery at Colleville overlooking the invasion beaches is the biggest and most famous with over 10,000 American crosses. 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.”
“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 fought hard and 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. And now those “common men” of yesterday seem so extraordinary to us. Their heroics 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 stationed 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.
The thoughtful question, as if posed by a silenced warrior asked again, “Will they remember me back home?”
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
Post Script 2013: After meeting Howie Beech, James Pratt stayed in touch and encouraged him to write his war memoirs resulting in “The Private War of Howie Beech” found at Amazon.
James Michael Pratt is a NY Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of three World War Two fiction novels among other published titles