Honor, Courage, and Commitment

Today is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day in Europe. Three paratroop divisions, plus several dozen infantry divisions, supported by the biggest naval armada ever assembled – all landed in a narrow corridor on a beach in Normandy France.

You had to have been there to realize the immense sacrifice and the courage to move forward when all around you, your buddies are dying, Mortar shells are landing and the constant high pitch buzz of a German machine gun fill the air.

Sure, you read about it in a history. On my bookshelf, I have several: Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far (Battle of Arnhem in Sept 1944). I have Stephen Ambrose’ Band of Brothers turned into hit miniseries.

In June, 2003, I had a chance to go to Normandy for myself. Along with some classmates, I took the train from Strasburg to Normandy. There, we toured Normandy and Brittany. We all went to see Omaha Beach. We had to. After all, we were all proud Americans.

The picture you see above is from the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. It is actually a small patch of American soil, deeded from France to the US in gratitude for all the sacrifices made to liberate France from the Nazis. If you were to walk from the bluffs to shoreline, at a leisurely pace, you could make it in 10 minutes. 15 minutes if you’re slow. But on that morning, when the brave infantrymen of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed, it took them six hours to fight their way up.

They suffered some of the highest casualty counts. Honor, Courage, Commitment were embodied that day.

A little further to the west is a place called Pointe Du Hoc. It is a small promontory that separates Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach. Allied intelligence believed that the Germans had sited four heavy guns that could shell the allied ships and men. That position had to be assaulted, cleared, and held. That job went to the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion.

There is not much there today – just massive depressions in the ground when large naval shells impacting, some broken concrete pillboxes, and some surviving ones for tourists to gawk at and survivors to remember, and a monument. Pointe Du Hoc is too close to the waves now and it is sealed off for safety reasons.

The phrase ” Rangers, Lead the Way!” was born that day. It is a sense of pride and encouragement when one Ranger says that to another. It is a feeling of following in a long tradition of men who fought together against overwhelming odds.

On June 6, 1944, 225 men exited their landing craft under fire and began the long climb up the cliff, a position that the Germans thought was unassailable. They made it to the top but that was just the beginning. Only 90 men were still standing when it was all over. The defenders had been cleared, heavy artillery sites had been destroyed, and they had to move inland. The irony: the Germans never actually installed the cannons! However, these cannons were later found and destroyed.

June 6 was not the end of the story. There was June 7th, then the 8th, then the 9th, and all the way to V-E Day on May 8, 1945. June 7th was just as precarious as the day before. The Germans were starting to rally. The Allies still had to bring in more men and equipment if they wanted to make it off the beachhead.

Breakout from Normandy, July 25, 1944

You don’t hear about these words today: Honor, Courage, Commitment, Duty, Sacrifice. Everything is about yourself, “patriotism is racism”, and what our grandparents did are forgotten. History and civics classes are just another things to be checked off to finish the state mandated curriculum.

At the end of book and movie The Return of the King, the hobbit Frodo Baggins bequeathed his papers to his faithful servant Samwise Gamgee to write the last pages of the book. That way future hobbits can learn of the sacrifices and the journey to free Middle Earth and never forget the costs of doing the right thing.

Perhaps one of the best ways I saw to give honor to the veterans was when cast members of the Band of Brothers posed with the people they were portraying.

I write this post to salute the fallen and to remind all readers that those Honor, Courage, and Commitment are more than words on a page but values to embody whether you are a veteran or civilian.

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