June 2, 2012

Seeking eternal peace

Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France
“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 1944
This June 6, some 68 years will have passed since the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force for the invasion of Europe made this short, stirring address to the nearly two million soldiers, sailors and airmen who comprised the largest invasion force in the history of the world.

And when the native of Denison, Texas, uttered these words those now many years ago, history tells us Gen. Eisenhower — and the rest of the world — only had a tiny inkling the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy had any hope of success.

While Adolph Hitler’s German war machine was a far cry from what it had been before tasting defeat along Russia’s Volga River at Stalingrad, it still was the most formidable army ever assembled on the continent of Europe.

Victory for the Allies after crossing the stormy and weather-plagued English Channel on the beaches of western France was by no means a certainty.

It’s easy to sit back and view all the triumphs, heroism and mistakes made in the cold, hard light of history.

It is quite another to be facing the challenge — and the gamble — of invading the continent of Europe to help end the Nazi scourge.

The eyes of the world indeed were focused on the massive invasion force people had yearned for since the Second World War had begun in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and started a conflict that would kill perhaps 70 million people.

No one will ever know the true number who died — or the final price tag on a war that to this day still affects every man, woman and child on planet Earth.

It changed national boundaries and scarred a generation, which lost the flower of its youth on battlefields from Carentan, France, to Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean — filling untold graves across the globe.

One such cemetery, as much a shrine as a graveyard, rests right along the beaches of Normandy, very near the bloodiest and most storied code-worded stretch of sand in Europe — Omaha.

The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer was established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944 — a scant two days after the initial landing on the Normandy beaches — as a temporary cemetery, and the first American cemetery on European soil during World War II.

After the war, the present-day cemetery was established a short distance from the original site.

A free and grateful France granted the United States a special, perpetual concession to the land occupied by the cemetery, free of both charge or tax. It is managed on foreign soil by our government and Congress — under the American flag.

On a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five Normandy landing sites during Operation Overlord, the cemetery encompasses 172 acres and contains the remains of 9,387 brave Americans — most of whom died during the invasion and subsequent military operations. The graves of Army Air Corps crews shot down over France before and after the invasion also rest at Colleville-sur-Mer.

The graveyard includes the famous and the everyday. Army Gen. Lesley J. McNair, one of the highest-ranking Americans killed in action during the war, is buried there. So are Medal of Honor recipients and common soldiers — including Brig Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Teddy Roosevelt.

All graves face west, toward America, in a gesture of respect for the accomplishment — and the sacrifice — of Americans and every Allied soldier, sailor and airman who gave their life to free France and Europe from Adolph Hitler.

Five years before his death, Eisenhower returned for his one and only time in Normandy. His words still echo across the beaches.

“These men came here — British and our allies, and Americans — to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves ... but to preserve freedom. I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned ... we must find some way ... to gain an eternal peace for this world.”

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle and may be reached at davidc@enidnews.com

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