I write this column on Memorial Day morning and my thoughts turn to what has to be just about the most impressive place I have ever seen in my life.
I am thinking of the American Cemetery in Normandy, which I had the privilege — and I do mean privilege — to visit years ago. The year was 1983 and the 40th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings would be coming up in the following year. At that time the World War II veterans were in their 60s and 70s and many planned to come to the anniversary.
I was in Normandy to do a story for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a preview of what visitors to the 1984 commemorations could expect to see.
And what you see at the cemetery is literally breath-taking. First of all, it sits on the bluff above Omaha Beach, where more than 1,000 American soldiers died in securing a foothold for the invasion of France. You can look down on the landing beach and easily imagine what our troops went through on that bloody ground.
The cemetery itself contains the graves of more than 9,300 American war dead. Row after row of beautiful, pristine white crosses, interspersed with an occasional Star of David, line the perfectly manicured grounds.
Each grave contains just basic information — the name of the fallen warrior, his military unit, his home state and the date of his death.
One of the first things that impresses you of course, is how young they were, late teens or early 20s for the most part. Only in a military cemetery do the young predominate.
As I walked the rows, I’d look at a cross and often wonder about the man whose remains lie beneath it. Was he studious or athletic? Or both? Was he quiet or was he the life of the party? What did he enjoy doing? What were his plans for when the war was over?
Did he leave behind a wife and baby? How did his parents and any siblings deal with his loss?
Do men who would have been future presidents or great senators lie here? Is perhaps the greatest American novelist interred in this ground? What about the would-be athletes? Is the greatest baseball player of all time here? What was the cost to our nation to lose these valiant young men?
The cost, of course, had to be met. Nazism had to be defeated. And the fallen warriors who will remain in Normandy for ever did their part. God bless every one of them and all of the other casualties of all of our wars, from the foot soldier who fought under George Washington in the American Revolution, to the splendid young soldiers who fight today in the Middle East.