'We must remember'

National | Recalling the heroes of Omaha Beach, 57 years after World War II's longest day

Issue: "Germ warfare and national security," June 2, 2001

in Normandy-The fresh dew at Omaha Beach does not slow the grass cutters. Six French groundskeepers in mud boots and jackets march through 10,000 graves. They are meticulous in shaving the grass to a single height around each and every marker. The task takes special miniaturized mowers and a choreographed routine. Three march east to west, three north to south, tidying the biggest piece of American lawn in Europe. The sputter of two-cycle engines is the only break in the peculiar quiet that settled over this knoll after American, British, and Canadian allies stumbled ashore to take back a continent 57 years ago this month. Then it was "bloody Omaha," the hardest fought 400 yards of battlefield in all of World War II. The U.S. forces that landed here were pinned down by land mines and German artillery as they risked everything to breach Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Of 225 U.S. rangers who clawed their way up the nearby bluff known as Pointe du Hoc, only 90 made it over the top. In the war's longest day, Allied casualties reached 10,000. When it was over, the French, in a rare fit of fondness, deeded this stretch of still boot-trampled dune to the United States. Yet for most Americans, D-Day remains a distant pinnacle in history: From the American side of the Atlantic and the other side of a century, June 6, 1944, marks someone else's liberation. In one sense that is true, as the elderly man and woman edging their way down the cemetery's main path attest. Nearly every week, driving from their home in Caen to visit relatives in Cherbourg, they make a detour to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery. Years ago, the wife says, they volunteered to lay flowers here. Each time it is a different marker and name provided by a veterans' group in the United States. This week it is a hard-to-find cross in Plot D, Row 19. "We must remember," she tells me while jabbing my arm for emphasis. "It is too important." I point to my 12-year-old son and tell her we have come to remember, too. "Thank you," she says repeatedly. It takes the help of all six groundskeepers for the couple to locate their appointed grave. The groundsmen retreat. The man and woman pause with their memories. She was a teenage girl in Caen during Nazi Germany's occupation of France and the Allied bombing that followed. He was in the Pacific, having escaped the occupation to join Allied fighting. The name on the marker is Private First Class Harry Bearcroft from California. The husband and wife absorb one more solitary life from the sea of thousands, reliving the sulfurous bludgeoning of their countryside, the deaths of friends, family, landmarks, and all earthly reason for hope. The husband takes a bundle of daffodils from his wife and unfolds them before the marker. They are quiet for a moment then leave wordlessly, arm in arm. Even in this early hour, every gesture here is undertaken like a benediction-but why is it so hard to take in the lessons laid down by the men beneath our feet? We forget the soldier's hard daily duty, to kill but keep his honor. We forget his forfeiture. We indulge in semicomatose public policymaking that exalts peace at any price. These men paid with everything they had to reach this promontory, while it cost me only a plane ticket and one bad night's sleep. We forget that they were called by their country but answered, finally and alone, to God. We forget that they died never knowing they had won. D-Day was a victory both personal and near. In Plot J lies Robert Boyette, Seaman First Class, U.S. Navy. To my friend Nancy Miller he is Uncle Robert. The youngest of four brothers, he begged his dad for permission to enlist at age 17. Two years into fighting in Europe, he piled into a landing craft bound for Omaha Beach at age 19. His youthful exuberance was blown to pieces when the boat exploded under German fire just before reaching the shore. Six decades on, Robert's name brings tears to his brothers in the broadslab farm country of North Carolina, where he is remembered for courage, for Christian conviction, for a fine way with animals, for an outgoing spirit, for a life ultimately spent on others instead of himself. As a resting place, ironically, Omaha Beach is convulsive. It is a good place to practice a broken and contrite heart. Because, as the aging veterans back home like to say, the real heroes are still there.

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