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Feet in the Sand

                The 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings will be celebrated this week in Normandy, France, and all over the free world.  I have always been fascinated by significant events of history and, in my opinion, there are few that rival what happened June 6, 1944. 

                I have had the privilege to visit France on several occasions and once, on our return flight out of Paris, we flew over the beaches of Normandy.  When the captain announced the beaches could be seen from the right side of the plane, I quickly jumped up from by seat on the left side of the aircraft, hobbled through a set of empty seats reserved for the flight attendants, just to grab a glance of them.  I apparently caused some commotion because I was chastised by the attendants and asked to return to my seat, where I was banished for the remainder of the six-hour flight.

                I told Lainey at the time that I would love to visit those beaches someday.  If I have learned anything in my 36 years of marriage to my wife is that she does not forget anything.  I have also learned that she likes to celebrate “special” birthdays.  For my 60th birthday, she hosted a dinner for family and friends and the Grove Park Inn.  As my next big birthday approached, I warned her I didn’t want a special party.  I didn’t get one.  What I got instead a dream trip to Normandy with my three sons, Andrew, Steven, and John Thomas. 

                This past March, we flew to Paris, rented a car, drove three hours to Normandy and spent two very full days visiting the 6 landing sites of June 6, 1944

                It was both a wonderful and educational yet sobering and emotional experience.  It was wonderful because it is a beautiful rural area of France with spectacular view of the English Channel with beaches and steep cliffs merging with the sea.  It was educational because of the many museums and displays that informed us of the size, scope and complicated logistics of the landings.  It was also wonderful because my sons were there to experience it with me.

                It was sobering due to the tremendous sacrifice of life that took place that day.  Thousands of young men died just on Omaha Beach that morning.  The beach is wide and deep and there was no protection from the relentless gunfire of the well-fortified German bunkers lining the shoreline.  It was sheer carnage. Yet they persevered and ultimately captured it.  As I walked on Omaha Beach, my sons backed off a bit and let me take it all in quietly and alone.   I was suddenly swept with emotion.  I couldn’t help wondering if I would have had the courage those young men exhibited that day.  I looked up and down the beach almost as far as I could see, visualizing that morning and wept.

                Later that day, we visited Pointe Du Hoc where the US 2nd and 5th Rangers climbed 100 foot cliffs to capture crucial gun emplacements.  60% of them did not survive the day.  Honor, duty, commitment ruled the day as they succeeded. 

                We visited St Mere Eglise,  the small inland town emblematic of the paratroopers that were dropped behind enemy lines overnight to disrupt communications and prevent enemy reinforcements.  Again, there were heavy losses as the paratroopers missed landing zones and were met by heavy resistance and losses. 

                The same could be said of Utah Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach, and Sword Beach where American, British, Canadian and some French forces landed.

                The significance of D Day is enormous.  In 1944, Germany ruled Europe and had its sights on Britain and beyond.  The world was in turmoil and serious danger.  The only option was to physically invade Europe, drive into the heart of Germany and defeat Hitler’s regime.  It was not going to be easy, it was going to require serious commitment and planning, and it was going to cost many lives.  But there was no other way. 

                The events of that day changed the course of history. We enjoy the many freedoms we too often take for granted because thousands upon thousands of young men and women from all over the globe were willing to take a stand.   

                Most of you probably familiar with the quote from philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” and I believe it is true.  We must always be mindful of our history, even our past failures, as we look to the future.  We must remember to value good over evil and to stand with our allies over anyone who seek absolute power and domination.   Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese went unchecked far too long and it almost cost us everything dear to us. 

                David Burnett is a photographer for National Geographic.  He has been going to Normandy since 1974 capturing moments of D Day Celebrations and remembrances.  He wrote a piece in this month’s issue.  He closes with these words:

                “History has a way of receding. Our recollections become secondhand, then thirdhand, and eventually just words in a history book. But I’m not sure the same fate awaits Normandy. I’ve never met anybody, young or old, who walked on Omaha Beach and didn’t feel the history of that place. There’s something very powerful about putting your feet on the sand”

                This March, I put my feet in that sand.  I have also “put my feet in the sand” at battlegrounds of Gettysburg, Appomattox, Pearl Harbor, and even Cowpens in South Carolina.  It is not just emotional; it is a reminder that we never forget what history has taught us.

 I pray we never have to make such sacrifices again.