D-Day veterans pay respects to fallen comrades
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2007
Mideast edition, Thursday, June 7, 2007
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Ralph Widener looked through the mist and toward the green grass lined with neat rows of short, white crosses.
“I have eight buddies buried in that cemetery out there,” he said, pointing to the crosses.
He knows it could just as easily have been his name etched in one of those ghostly forms of cruciform marble, for this was no ordinary cemetery. Just a few hundred yards away, the waters of the English Channel pounded Omaha Beach, home of the Normandy American Cemetery and final resting place of many who died during the Allies’ invasion of Normandy 63 years ago.
The main reason he returned to the site of his buddies’ burial was to pay his respects to them.
He was among thousands, though one of only a handful of D-Day veterans who attended the commemoration Wednesday of the 63rd anniversary of the invasion.
The American Battle Monuments Commission, which runs the cemetery, also used the occasion to dedicate a new visitor center, which tells the story of the battle and the Americans buried in the cemetery.
The invasion is remembered as among the greatest military victory of all times, though it was at “Bloody Omaha” where the Allied offensive faltered and almost failed, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in the ceremony’s keynote address. Bad intelligence, bad weather and bad luck colluded against the Allies that day, he said.
“But on these beaches, the tide finally turned,” he said, “though at a great and sorrowful cost.”
On the first day of the invasion, some 6,600 Americans, 3,000 Britons, 1,000 Canadians and nearly two dozen French died as they tried to establish an Allied foothold in Normandy.
“We build memorials like this to remind us of the past so that successive generations will know the enormous cost of freedom,” Gates said.
This sentiment was also expressed in speeches delivered by French Minister of Defense Herve Morin and American Battle Monuments Commission Chairman Frederick M. Franks Jr.
Franks, a retired Army general, said the day was one to remember the thousands of soldiers “who carried the hopes and prayers of the Free World on their young shoulders.”
Some of them sat among the audience, he said. Many more are buried in the cemetery. Even more have died during the years since the invasion, he said.
For those who lived through the battle and survive today, what was accomplished here hasn’t faded.
William Robinson hadn’t been back to Normandy since he landed on Omaha Beach those 63 years ago to the day, but he remembers thinking that Omaha Beach looked like little more than a beach with a hill behind it.
He’d already fought in North Africa and Sicily with the 1st Infantry Division. None of those battles compared to what he saw on Omaha.
When his company disembarked their landing craft in the first wave “nice and early in the morning” on June 6, 1944, half the men were killed, he said.
He was wary of what the nostalgia of returning to the battleground-turned-battle monument might do to him, he said, but he came anyway. The memory of the friends he lost on the beach tugged at his heart.
“I cherish the thoughts of it,” he said. “We had some good times, and we had some bad times. You lost a lot of friends … when you went to battle.”