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Saturday, June 05, 2004

Sixty years ago 

It is midnight on the east coast as I write this, and at this time sixty years ago, while most of the east coast slept, the men of the Allied Expeditionary Force were about to face the greatest test of their--perhaps anyone's--lives. Some were already on the ground behind Hitler's Atlantic Wall, having jumped or glided into Normandy in the predawn darkness. Many others at this moment were being tossed about by the stormy English Channel in Higgins Boats or amphibious tanks and trucks. They were a mere thirty minutes from setting foot on beaches and climbing sheer cliffs to push the German army the first few hard-fought yards back toward Berlin.

Many were afraid, and few had any idea what awaited them on the beach. Many prayed, aloud or in silence.

Far too many of those men never made it off the beach, or even out of their boats. Many more were killed in the days that followed as Operation Overlord pushed inland.

Those men, mostly American, British, and Canadian, but from many other countries as well, began the most important fight in history 60 years ago. They fought and they died for nothing less than the future of humanity. What a huge burden for the 18 year old Private or 22 year old Lieutenant to shoulder! But they did, willingly, professionally, and honorably. They rid the world of the greatest evil it has ever known.

Over 9,000 of my country's finest men who died to free Europe are buried at the American military cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, atop a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach.

The cemetery is an awe-inspiring place. The neat rows of white crosses, with Stars of David scattered here and there, cover over 170 acres of impeccably-manicured grass. A soaring, hopeful monument rises on one end, while a small and simple chapel stands near the center.

It was to this cemetery that French friends of mine took me as part of a full day touring Omaha Beach, the D-Day Museum in Caen, and Colleville-Sur-Mer. Visiting the cemetery after the beach, I was struck by the magnitude of what had happened there. My friends were silent as I paced along a row of crosses, reading the names of American heroes that I had never known, and as I stepped into the chapel to say a silent prayer of mourning, and of thanks to these thousands of men who had died decades before I was born.

And creeping into my thoughts that day was a question: "If called upon, can I ever hope to measure up to the standard set by the Americans who fought and died here?" You see, just a few days before my visit to Normandy, I had learned that I had been offered an appointment to the United States Naval Academy.

I have not, thankfully, been called upon to face what they faced in the dark days of 1944. I don't know if I would prove myself worthy to follow in their footsteps. I hope so, but one never knows until the test has been faced.

I have a picture, taken that day in Normandy, of myself next to a monument on the beach. The monument is in the second picture down on this page. It is a simple monument, with a simple message in French and English:

"Ici le 6 juin 1944, l'héroïsme des forces alliées libère l'Europe."
"Here, on June 6th 1944, the heroism of the Allied Forces liberated Europe."

It is the most somber picture of me ever taken, I think. I kept it on my desk for four years at Annapolis as a reminder of why I was there, and of what I owed the men who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy.

As I wrap up this post, it is 12:30 AM on the east coast of the United States.

Sixty years ago at this hour, an ocean away, ramps were lowered on innumerable landing craft and the liberation of Europe commenced.
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