By Joe Darby
One of the more profound and moving experiences of my life was when I visited the American Cemetery on the bluffs just above Omaha Beach in Normandy.
This was years ago but I remember it like it was last week. The plain but elegant white crosses seemed to go on forever, in perfect rows, broken occasionally by a Star of David. Each of these small monuments marks the final resting place of one of thousands of young men, who once were soldiers, and were young. These lads will forever remain on hallowed ground that they fought and gave their lives for.
My thoughts turn to them, and to hundreds of thousands of others who underwent the ultimate sacrifice, as America once more observes Veterans Day. I realize that Veterans Day is to honor our living men and women who wore the uniform , either in peace or wartime, and that Memorial Day, in May, is to honor our fallen.
But I’m taking a little poetic license in this week’s column to recall some memories I have of both living and deceased veterans. I was on a guided tour of significant places relating to the June 6, 1944 D-Day Invasion when I visited the American Cemetery. It was almost 40 years after the fact, in 1983, that I was there.
Looking at the endless markers, I wondered how those young fellows would have turned out. Were a few of the potentially greatest baseball players of all time resting there? Future great novelists or movie actors? Future scientists who could have made our lives easier or safer? Future presidents who could have changed history for the better? We’ll never know, of course. Because they gave their all in a fight against genuine evil, Hitler’s Nazi regime.
When I was a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, I also had the privilege of interviewing many World War II veterans who were attending reunions of their military unit, or naval ship in New Orleans. Some of the things they had witnessed and accomplished were remarkable. Many of them had likely been uncomfortable talking about their experiences to friends and family members. But by the 1980s, as the 40th anniversaries of their battles rolled around, they were ready to start meeting up with their old comrades and shipmates and talk about the war.
Interestingly, though, all of my interviewees, invariably, said they had really done nothing, that it was the men who did not come home who were the real heroes. The greatest example of that viewpoint was when I was introduced to a man who had served as a Marine on Iwo Jima. If you have studied World War II at all, you probably know that Iwo was one of the most horrific battles in the whole conflict.
The Japanese had had many months to prepare near impregnable defenses, underground bunkers, hidden artillery spots, etc. To have simply fought on that little volcanic, ash-covered island, was a gut-wrenching experience. But the gentleman I was introduced to had actually been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions there. Typically modest, he said he had done nothing special. But with the encouragement of his friends, he did acknowledge what he had experienced. To my very great regret I don’t recall details of what he said — the interview was about 40 years ago. But I do know that he was a genuine American hero. An average guy who did very unaverage things in the midst of a hell hole. I’m sure he’s gone by now, God rest his soul.
Some of the veterans were able to mix humor with other details of their exploits. I recall with fond memories the stories of a B-17 bomber crew who had been shot up pretty good while on a raid over Germany. They were limping back to England, slowly losing altitude, and were jettisoning every heavy piece of equipment they could, such as machine guns and ammunition, to try to lighten the aircraft’s load. Then they looked at their navigator, smiled and said he too had done his part. He had dutifully thrown his pencils out of the plane. Well, hey, every little bit helps, I suppose.
What a privilege it was to meet and talk to such men. I interviewed a man who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, whose sailors remained in shark-infested waters for several days before help came. Many suffered and died from exposure or shark attacks. I also talked to a gentleman who led Filipinos in guerrilla battles against the Japanese. Men who parachuted into Normandy before the rest of the Allied troops landed on the beaches. Men who experienced a deadly Japanese Kamikaze attack on the USS Kidd, which is now on display in Baton Rouge. They lost more than 30 of their shipmates in that battle.
I could go on, but I think you have an idea of what a magnificent experience it was for me to meet these men who made history. Perhaps a few of those fellows are still alive, but I’m sure not many are. The very youngest WWII vets would be in their mid-90s now. But every one of them, here or gone, merits our utmost respect and gratefulness. God bless ’em all.