In April, four of us from VFW Post 7234 — Fulton and Theo Loppatto, my wife Rosemary and I — went to France for a trip down the Seine River from Paris to Normandy. Our objective at the end of the journey was Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
It was an extraordinary trip, touching on a small part of the over-2,000-year history of that country and visiting places I had only seen in movies or National Geographic, or read about in history books and novels.
I know many of you have been to France, in uniform or as tourists, and saw and experienced a lot more than we did. But with Memorial Day in mind, I wanted to share a few observations from our trip.
Americans in Paris
We spent our time in Paris visiting the tourist highlights, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre museum. Some of the sights that stood out, at least to us, were the monuments and memorials honoring Americans, including statutes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette (an honorary American).
And there was the surprising sight of the Disney Store on the Champs-Elipees and three or four smaller replicas of the Statue of Liberty, France’s gift to the United States in New York harbor. A little bit of home in Paris.
One monument that is not on the typical list is a memorial honoring Americans who died fighting for France in World War I. The bronze figure on top of the monument is that of the American poet Alan Seeger, a volunteer in the French Foreign Legion who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 before the United States entered the war in 1917.
In all this, you have a sense of the shared history and friendship between our two countries.
And then we came upon a reminder of the Holocaust in France during World War II.
Walking through a park with laughing kids in playgrounds and people strolling and enjoying the sunny day, we stopped at a small memorial to the Jewish families in the neighborhood, including the names of the 87 children 6 years old and younger, who were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis. They were among the 200,000 Jewish victims of the Nazis in France during the Holocaust. If anyone asks whether America’s sacrifice in the war was worthwhile, here is an answer.
On the way to Normandy
Almost every town along the Seine we docked at had memorials to those who died in World Wars I and II. There were special memorials to American units, and some of the other allied countries, honoring those who gave their lives to liberate France from the Nazis in World War II.
Beyond those reminders, the lessons of World War II, what France endured in defeat, division and the brutal Nazi occupation from 1940 into 1944, and the debt of gratitude to the United States and the allied forces, are taught in history classes in French schools. It is considered a “duty of remembrance,” a moral responsibility to learn and not forget the lessons of the past.
One point emphasized is that France would not be free without the sacrifices of the United States.
I wasn’t able to make the trip to the beach and cemetery on the day scheduled. But Rosemary’s pictures, descriptions and impressions and those of Fulton and Theo made the areas as vivid for me as if I was there.
Seeing the actual terrain, the expanse of beach that had to be crossed and the height of the steep bluff that had to be climbed gives you an idea of the physical task of the troops in the assault on June 6, 1944.
The ruins of the German fortifications, steel-reinforced bunkers, casements and gun emplacements, gives you an idea of the formidable opposition the troops faced. The scars of shell holes and huge bomb craters gives you an idea of the up-close ferocity of the battle and the courage it took to overcome all the obstacles and opposition and take the high ground. What an incredible heroic accomplishment!
President Ronald Reagan recognized and honored the D-Day veterans in a speech on June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day, at Pointe du Hoc, the site where the U.S. Army Rangers climbed a sheer 100-foot cliff to seize German gun emplacements. His words resonate today for many conflicts.
To the veterans and others assembled on that day, he said: “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or the next. It was a deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not conquer, and so you and others did not doubt your cause.”
Where Omaha Beach is a place of major historical importance, the American cemetery and memorial is a profoundly sacred place of reverence. Located about 8 miles east of Pointe du Hoc, the 172.5-acre site contains the graves of our 9,387 U.S. military dead, including 45 sets of brothers, and the names of 1,557 who were then considered missing-in-action.
Not all of the dead fell on D-Day. Some lost their lives later in the campaign to liberate France and were interred in this cemetery.
Beautifully landscaped and immaculately maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the headstones of white marble crosses and Stars of David are so precisely aligned it’s hard to see one behind another when you look down a row. But you can clearly see the cost of freedom.
The cemetery is a beautiful and fitting resting place for those who gave their lives to win the battles and the war. Rosemary and Theo placed roses at the memorial in the Garden of the Missing, so they wouldn’t be forgotten. Fulton placed a rose on the grave of PFC Frederick Brevig, a soldier who served in the same unit as Fulton’s Uncle Casimir, who was killed in action later in the year and is buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery in northern France.
The memorial overlooking the cemetery features a graceful 22-foot sculpture, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” The inscription at the base of the statue reads: “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord.” It evokes a sense of resurrection: that this was not the end and that their spirit lives on. They gave their lives so that literally millions of others in France, Europe and here at home could thereafter live in peace and freedom.
Here, too, as in France, we are resolved that they will not be forgotten.
VFW Post 7234 will conduct a Memorial Day ceremony at the Bethany Beach bandstand on Monday, May 28, beginning at 11 a.m. Another ceremony will be conducted on Wednesday, May 30, again beginning at 11 a.m., at the post on Marshy Hope Way in Ocean View. All are welcome.
President Reagan closed his speech at Pointe du Hoc with these words: “Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”
Amen to that on Memorial Day and every day.
By Jerry Hardiman
Special to the Coastal Point