The pandemic has given me a lot of opportunities to read. Most of my planned trips have turned into “Zooms,” as they are called, and I have stayed in Oregon for most of the last six months. I am still one of those persons who likes to go to “real” bookstores, so I made the pilgrimage as soon as Barnes and Noble reopened in Bridgeport.
One of the books that caught my eye was entitled, The Dead and Those About to Die by John McManus. Why? The subject materially interested me – the American attack on German forces at Normandy, known as D-Day. I also wondered how the title was connected to that important day in the history of Western Civilization.
The book is a compelling and vivid portrayal of the 1st Infantry Division’s attempt to take Omaha Beach from the German forces and begin the process of liberating Europe from fascism. Although I have read a number of books on the Omaha Beach assault, none has provided a more personal picture of the sacrifice and leadership necessary to create the Omaha beachhead on June 6, 1944. McManus draws from hundreds of reports and personal letters to develop a “white-knuckle” account of the battle. In some units, as many as 60 percent of the men who hit the beach became casualties. Withering machine-gun fire, constant artillery bombardment, and a thoroughly mined beach made it almost impossible to breach the German defenses.
The mortal enemy of success
At one key moment early in the assault, Colonel George Taylor landed and noticed that the American troops had become stationary on the beach. He knew that in an amphibious assault “inertia” was the mortal enemy of success. In order to achieve the mission, you could not hide. You had to move forward toward the guns. When he saw his men literally stationary all down the beach, men recalled after the battle, he began to run and yell to his men, “Many of your comrades are dead, unless you want to end up dead as well, follow me.”
He did what was counterintuitive – he charged with his men toward the German lines. He, and a number of other leaders, were credited that day with saving the American effort at Omaha Beach. Were it not for his sacrifice the battle might have gone differently and with it, perhaps, the fate of Western democracy.
It is a book I had a difficult time putting down – it constantly drew me into the story. At the same time, the descriptions of that day were horrific. Had I been a young man in 1944, I do not know how I would have responded to the extraordinary conditions that led to the sacrifice of so many good men on that day. McManus’ portrayal gives active voice to the catch phrases we use so easily – “freedom is not free.” As I read the book I was constantly reminded of the sacrifice and commitment of men and women who have gone ahead of us to create the society we have, even with all its faults.
Honoring a fallen hero
Early this summer, I had an opportunity to “experience” this type of sacrifice more personally. I had the honor of attending a funeral of a young search and rescue officer who had died serving his community. (To provide privacy for the family, I’ll call him Smith.) The young man was a military veteran and a volunteer firefighter. The funeral was in a small town in the Northwest and, for me, it was like going back in time. I grew up in small towns in rural Arizona, and when someone died the entire town showed up at the funeral. That was also the case on this day.
I was not sure what to expect. I had never seen a complete ceremony for a lost firefighter, but the one they conducted was more meaningful than I ever expected. The hearse was preceded by more than 20 fire engines from the entire county who came to honor the fallen. Firefighters dressed in uniform attending the hearse removed the casket in solemn step and carried it to the graveside. Two military officers carefully folded the flag that was on the casket and carried it in unison to the family.
Silence followed, guns fired and then a military person played Taps. As Taps echoed in silence, military, police and fire officers were standing straight with arms raised in salute. Taps was followed with a moment of silence. Then over a radio came the call “Officer Smith, this is dispatch please respond.” The voice echoed the message three times — “Officer Smith, this is dispatch please respond.” Silence followed. Then, the dispatcher noted — “Officer Smith since you have not responded I believe you have answered your last call. We bid you good-bye. You have served our community well. We want you to know that we will not fail this community, and although you are no longer with us the mission goes forward. We who are left pick up your call and we continue to serve . . .” Silence followed.
There was something about that moment that was universally human and invited everyone into the community’s loss. It was sacred and solemn. It reminded me about what is best about our country. In order for us to live and prosper in a free country it takes the consistent sacrifice of men and women who choose to serve others in the community, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. Sometimes these people wear uniforms, but, as we have been reminded of in the time of COVID-19, they also are doctors, nurses, teachers, and social workers among many who serve their community. The Apostle Paul reminded the Christians at Ephesus to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” And thus, we are called to focus on the needs of others.
I have had the privilege of taking students three times to the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. Each time, as we looked out over hundreds of crosses in rows aligned perfectly, we listened to Taps being played in honor of the fallen. It is a holy moment. It never fails that once the ceremony is over the students pull out jars from their backpacks and walk down to the beach and they fill them with sand. Any rational person knows that the sand that is now on Omaha Beach no longer has any connection with the men who sacrificed their lives there so long ago. What I have discovered is that it does not matter. What they are capturing is a “symbol” of the valiant work and sacrifice of the American soldiers on that day. My jar rests prominently on a bookshelf in my office, forever a reminder that my life should be lived as a sacrifice to others.