Commemorating Our D-Day Heroes – June 5

Our Washington, D.C. World War II D-Day recognition events began on June 5 with an introduction by author Alex Kershaw. Mr. Kershaw discussed his 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 invasion, following through to the battle’s conclusion some seventy days later. Mr. Kershaw’s emphasis is mainly on five men who participated in the landings and the immediately ensuing battles.

These D-Day books offer unique perspectives on the invasion. Both are difficult to read and yet speedily devoured as you want to know more and more.

Mr. Kershaw is an excellent speaker, combining humor and humility with a scholar’s understanding of his topic. His book is emotional, laden with stories of the admirable feats of men and units during the invasion.

Tying the D-Day Lecture to a Person

One veteran joined Mr. Kershaw. They said his name once and I could not find it listed anywhere. What a joy to listen to the veteran relay stories of the life-altering landing and of being a POW. This humble man discussed being in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s battalion and in proximity to the man. He quipped in reference to his age (93), “Of course, I knew Lincoln, too,” which brought a big chuckle.

Later at the World War II Memorial, volunteers read the names of those who died in Operation Overlord. This reading of approximately 3,000 names went on until midnight. I wondered if my Great Uncle Lloyd Naugle was among the names. My uncle made the landing, received wounds on June 13 and died on June 14, 1944. My grandmother never discussed the death of her 27-year-old brother who had been in the army since 1941. 

D-Day – June 6

On D-Day, Alex Kershaw served as the Master of Ceremonies for the Presenting of the Wreaths at the Memorial. Witnessing the Presentation of Colors by the Armed Forces Color Guard, makes me tear up. Patriotism can strike our hearts at both likely and unlikely times. Seeing our young men (in this case) present the flags of our 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? A less likely grieving time may be when a patriot’s death is listed in the news. It is not a personal loss, yet my heart aches at the passing of another veteran who gave so much.

Josiah “Sy” Bunting III is the Chairman of the Friends of the World War II Memorial. 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.

Attending events honoring our World War II Veterans: 

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?

Although the Veterans have their wits about them, they seem to find their celebrity status bewildering.

Why are we observers so eager to snap photographs of them and treasure standing beside them for the opportunities?

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 serving at bases in the continental United States, he got stationed on Oahu. He told us they sent him there as punishment for an infraction, but he never told us why. 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.

I once thanked 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. Coming of age during the 1970s we had an entirely different growing up experience than 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 vivid memories of the evening news and 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. We were prohibited from watching the news.

My parents were stunned when Vietnam Veterans returned home and were not hailed as heroes. 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 D-Day 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 with the dedication of the Vietnam Wall in, D.C., a long process of healing began for these Veterans. Our World War II veterans were celebrated as they arrived home. Yet there is a surge in recent years of lauding them as heroes. Does that 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 thank a veteran 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.

*Read, Alex Kershaw, Award-Winning WWII Author