Commemorating our D-Day heroes

June 5

Alex Kershaw, The First Wave, The D-Day WarriorsWe started our Washington, D.C. World War II D-Day recognition events on June 5 with an introduction by author Alex Kershaw. Mr. Kershaw discussed the scope of his new book, The First Wave, The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II.

A few years ago, I read Antony Beevor’s 700 page tome, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. Beevor focuses on the strategy of the D-Day invasion and follows it through to the conclusion of the battle some seventy days later. Mr. Kershaw’s book emphasizes five men who participated in the landings and the immediately ensuing battles.

Each of these D-Day books offers a unique perspective on the invasion. Both are difficult to read and yet are speedily devoured as you want to know more and more.

Mr. Kershaw is an excellent speaker, combining humor and humility with a strong scope of understanding of his topic. His book is an incredibly fast read, albeit one laden with emotional stories of the admirable feats of men and units during the invasion.

Alex Kershaw

Mr Kershaw & Veteran

Tying the talk to a person

Along with Mr. Kershaw was one veteran—his name was mentioned only once and not listed anywhere—and a woman whose father was killed in the initial invasion. The veteran was a joy to listen to. He relayed stories of the life-altering landing and experience of later being a POW. He was humble in discussing being in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s battalion and in proximity to the man. The veteran quipped in reference to his age (93), “Of course, I knew Lincoln, too,” which brought a big chuckle.

At the World War II Memorial at 4:00 p.m. volunteers began reading the names of those who died as a result of Operation Overlord. This reading went on until midnight—they read approximately 3,000 names. I wondered if my Uncle Lloyd Naugle was among the names since he died on June 14, 1944 after being wounded the previous day. My grandmother never discussed the death of her 27-year-old brother who had been in the army since 1941. 

D-Day – June 6

The next day, D-Day, Alex Kershaw was the Master of Ceremonies for the Presenting of the Wreaths at the Memorial. Each time I witness the Presentation of Colors by the Armed Forces Color Guard, I get teary eyed. Patriotism can strike our hearts at both likely and unlikely times. Seeing our young men (in this case) present the flags of our various military branches is one of the likely moments. Another instance is the playing of the National Anthem by the US Army Band. How do you not tear up seeing 90+ year old vets stand with hats removed and hands over hearts? An unlikely time may be the simple feeling of sadness that comes each time a patriot’s death is listed in the news. It is surely not a personal loss that I feel and yet my heart aches at the loss of another veteran who gave so much.

Friends of the World War II Memorial chairman, Josiah “Sy” Bunting III, was another treasured experience of the two days. We were fortunate to talk at length with Sy after the panel discussion on Wednesday. As a Vietnam veteran, West Point educator, and author, we could have visited with him for hours. 

When we attend events honoring our World War II Veterans, several items are striking. 

  • It is difficult not to think of the veterans as being on display. But do we understand why? Is it because of who they are and what they did combined with how they’ve lived the last 75+ years of their lives?
  • The veterans appear to be bewildered by their seeming celebrity status. Although they clearly have their wits about them, they look amazed to be the topic of attention. 
  • Why are we observers so eager to snap photographs of them and treasure standing beside them for the opportunities?
  • And one question that may only be in my mind—when we are the ages they are now, will we keep our wits about us as well as they? Or is there something to The Greatest Generation that has kept so many of them in the daily movement of their lives from the 1940s until now?

Points of reference

I’m the child of a man who was in the army during the Korean Conflict. Dad served his time in the 361st Military Police Corp. After moving around Army bases on the continental United States, he was stationed on Oahu. He told us that he was

Dad, Army military police

Dad, Military Police, Hawaii

sent there for punishment for some infraction, but he would never tell us the whole story. Because he was such a storyteller, we never knew what to believe. Dad also, in his uniquely humble way, didn’t like to call himself a veteran because he hadn’t gone to Korea.

As I was once thanking a Korean Vet for his service and told him of my father’s humility, he paused in thought then said, “It still counts. He was ready to go.” I wish a combat veteran had told Dad that when he was alive to hear and embrace the words.

I’m also a child of the Vietnam War, turning 14 in 1973. We children coming of age during the 1970s had an entirely different growing up experience than those 14-year-olds in the 1940s. My patriotic parents supported the troops if they did not understand the war or surrounding politics of Southeast Asia. I have a vivid memory of watching the evening news showing injured troops being carried on stretchers.  Being the most inquisitive of children, I must have asked questions because that is the only memory I have. I assume from then on we were prohibited from watching the news.

When the Vietnam Veterans returned home and were not hailed as heroes, my parents were stunned. This was not the America they knew. Veterans served their country and we showed thanks and gratitude for what they did. To not do so struck their core beliefs as being wrong.

Displaying our Veterans

How do we celebrate our heroes without putting them on display as if they are icons of the war?

We give credit where it’s due. From 1982 when the Vietnam Wall was dedicated in Washington, D.C., a long process of healing began for these Veterans. Our World War II veterans were celebrated as soon as they came home from serving. Yet there is a surge in recent years of lauding them as heroes. Does it come about in direct relationship to the recognition our other veterans are receiving? Perhaps it is because we realized they’re aging and we had better thank them while we can.

Putting our veterans in front of crowds, reciting their deeds, shaking their hands, and seeking their photographs is a small way of connecting them to us. When you meet a veteran and thank him—or her—for their service, what you repeatedly hear is, “I didn’t do much.” So often this is not the truth when their biographies are revealed. There is a modesty to the way they speak of what they did that lesser folks should take to heart and emulate.

What I hope we have learned from this great generation is that the dark moments we experience need to be spoken of. Our intense times are worthy of discussion, of bringing into the open. In so doing allows a cathartic purging of trauma, the sadness, the deep memories. The tellers heal, the listeners learn, and the experiences the veterans went through continue to serve a purpose.

Note: Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator, about the astounding solider Felix Sparks, is being made into a Netflix series in 2020. While we look forward to viewing this, I recommend reading the book first.