I’ve been to France but didn't get to Normandy. I’ve never stood on Omaha Beach, stared up at the intimidating cliffs and wondered how men accomplished this impossible mission.
“D-Day” is one of those links to the past that trigger images of an old war with black and white photos of the Normandy invasion in 1944. It is remembered by aged men, most of them frail and fading. You see them interviewed on TV occasionally, their memories of those awful days 68 years ago as fresh and painful as though it happened just last week. Men whose number dwindles sadly with each passing day. You see their names in the obits with little American flags next to them.
I have nothing to add to their story, to this day of tribute. I’ve seen the movies, read the books, attended lectures. I was 9 years old when “our boys” landed. To me, it was adventure of the highest order. The stuff of comic books and movies and newspaper headlines and stories in Life magazine. I don’t recall seeing many pictures of dead, dying, wounded, maimed, suffering.
About 4 years ago I interviewed a man, then in his mid-80’s, who was there. At Omaha Beach. His name was Charles and he had lived a productive, happy life since the end of the war, raised a family, was still married and owned his own modest home. He and I were doing a video for his kids and grandkids. About his life. He talked about the war, the landing, the hard road across France.
We got near the end of our conversation. He returned to one memory of D-Day, nothing deep or revealing, just a thought about being so thirsty. He paused. I asked him, “Are you a hero, Charles?” He looked at me, then looked away for a long time. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard the question. Then I saw tears in his eyes. It was the first time in the 2 hours we had been talking I had seen such depth of pain and feeling. Charles turned back to me and struggled to say, “The heroes are buried over there. Or they’re at the bottom of the ocean. I’m not a hero.”
Maybe that’s what D-Day means to me. Sure, part of it is the amazing bravery shown on all the beaches during those days. But the other part is the pain that continues decades later, the memories that remain buried. Or almost buried, only to resurface at the most unexpected moments.
To me, they were all heroes. And I pause to think of them them today.
Photo by Susan Manlin Katzman, taken at
Normany in May, 2012.