Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, June 06, 2011

Hitting the Beach

At a recent Toastmasters meeting, our Table Topic for the meeting was what we did on Memorial Day and what we’d be doing for the summer.  Everyone got a separate question.  My question was:  “What beach will you be going to this weekend?”

The fact that I never go to beaches anymore because my skin can’t take the sun was simply too much information.  Besides, going to the beach wasn’t on my agenda for Memorial Day – it was a graduation and two Memorial Day parades.  In any case, what were my fellow toastmasters thinking?  Memorial Day isn’t about going to the beach or the mall or a barbecue.  It’s about remembering the military members who gave their lives so we could enjoy those things in peace and freedom.

My answer was:  Omaha Beach.  They looked at me blankly.  A strip of sand on France’s Normandy coast, where thousands of men were slaughtered trying to scale Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and save Europe from his tyrannical rule.

Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold, and Sword.   The U.S. First Army landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.  The Army Rangers landed at Pointe Du Hac (the cliffs over Omaha Beach).  D-Day is one of those famous battles, that if you’re any kind of American, you need to remember.  The battle was so savage, the casualties so overwhelming that, like Pearl Harbor Day, it gets its own date on the calendar.  This is not a holiday; it’s an anniversary.

That means no sales, no barbecues, no parades, no day at the beach.  Well, maybe you should go to a beach on this day, if you can.  Take the sunscreen and hat with you, but leave everything else behind you.  Find a solitary section of the beach, away from the beach balls, brightly-colored umbrellas, and nearly naked bodies.  Down the beach, away from the merriment, imagine yourself a 19 year-old kid, probably just off a farm, or maybe from a city.  You’ve probably been seasick from the journey across the channel from some port in England where you’d been waiting for days and days.

The ramp of the transport splashes into the water.  Omaha Beach, the mostly heavily fortified of the Atlantic Wall, is up ahead.  But you have to swim inland because the transports can’t get any further ashore due to the mines and obstacles.  The first men out of the transport are instantly slaughtered by heavy machine gun fire or drown in the six to ten foot-deep water, their packs weighing them down.

The machine gun fire is so heavy it’s like running into a wall of steel.  Men beside you (you’re underage – in 1944, adulthood wasn’t officially granted until age 21) fall down, heads and limbs blown off.  Then you feel something sharp hit you with an incredible pain and you fall face down into the sand, your helmet tumbling off ahead of you.  It’s all over.  Just like that.  Your last words, your last cry, because you’re so young, is for your mother.

Imagine, as you’re standing there on your protected beach, that young man lying before you, the waves lapping at his boots.  He didn’t want to die.  He didn’t want to have to get out of that transport, where he knew the odds of surviving weren’t good.  But he did it.  So did thousands more like him.  Ultimately, America won the war.  Those who survived D-Day to return home seldom spoke about June 6, 1944.  They don’t like being called heroes (even though they most certainly are).  For us, being there was enough.  But we must respect the distinction.  Those who died made the ultimate sacrifice.  If we don’t remember what they did and how they died, we’ll begin to take freedom for granted.  We’ll forget.

And then we’ll lose our freedom.  So this summer when you’re at the beach, struggling through the sand dragging your beach umbrellas, coolers, and blankets, and building sandcastles, remember for a moment the Atlantic Wall and the sands of Omaha Beach. 

Remember D-Day.

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