The blood has long ago been washed away by the cold Atlantic waves, the blood of tens of thousands of young men, killed and wounded, here on Gold Beach, Omaha Beach, Utah, Sword and Juno Beaches. This morning the tide is rising, now halfway up, just as it was on June 6, 1944 when they came ashore, wave after wave, facing German incessant machine gun fire from the rises just above them, and long range, heavy artillery from the headlands on the right and the left.
I am here, not far from Cherbourg, two weeks in advance of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landing, a day that was a major turning point in World War Two, and big step in the downfall of the Third Reich. There is a light breeze from the right, and the rain can’t make up its mind, swinging in rapid succession from drizzle to sunshine to ten minute downpours.
Music from a merry-go-round above the beach tries to soften the atmosphere, but in the museum just a few yards away there are hundreds of photos and paraphernalia from the intense battle: things that do not seem to belong on the same ground with a merry-go-round. Jutting up from the water stand the rotting hulks of sunken ships and concrete caissons placed here to erect a makeshift harbor to supply the troops already moving on towards Germany.
The sandy beach is about 200 yards deep, with frolicking children running up and down. It is mid-week, and school outing groups are here in large numbers. I wonder if these children are aware of the sanctity of this place. Do they know that they can play on this beach today because of what these men did here 70 years ago? What does 70 years mean to a seven year old?
I am approaching my eightieth birthday, too young to have served in WWII. I was six when it started, eleven when it drew to a close. My five older brothers wore their country’s uniform during that war, and our father fought in the First World War, The War to End All Wars. Pop jokingly described his military occupation as a ‘bullet catcher.’ He caught three German bulletsd uring his time in the trenches.
My next stop is at the WWI Tyne Cot memorial cemetery near Passchendaele, Belgium. The remains of more than 12,000 soldiers rest there, but the identities of 8,300 of them are known only to God. During a battle here that lasted 100 days, there were more than a half million casualties, an incredible number, killed, wounded and missing. Half of the casualties were the enemy. Now, a century later, they sleep peacefully together.
I think about the children on the beach in Normandy. May those children never have to experience horrors such as those that visited this area 70 and 100 years ago. And may they, we, hold in a place of honor the memory of the brave men who fought here, and the great sacrifices that they made for all of us.
Joe Oakes, FRGS, is a Korean War veteran and lives in Portland, OR with his wife of 57 years, Sylvia Nelson Oakes.
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“In Flanders Fields” is a war poem written during the First World War
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
Thank you. There is a spot in northern Pakistan where an American poppy grows, marking where the first Oregonian to die in the current middle Eastern wars died, a former student of mine, Brian Bertrand. Wilfred Owen was right.