“You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here.”
~ Ronald Reagan, at the 40th Anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1984.
On a recent trip to France, my husband and I explored the World War II battle sites from Omaha Beach to Saint Mere Eglise. If you’re like me and think you know everything you need to know about the American D-Day invasion of the Normandy beaches, you haven’t stepped in the sand at Omaha Beach or walked through the Normandy American Cemetery.
Over half of the American soldiers who fought to liberate France on the Normandy beaches died there. And if you listen closely enough, the sand will whisper the stories of the fallen soldiers, who were brave, resolute young men fighting for freedom.
9,387 United States soldiers are buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. Most of them were not much older than boys when they stormed the shores of Normandy Beach. Recent high school graduates gave up their boyhood dreams to instead fight for democracy and regain Europe from the Nazis, one bloody battle at a time.
As you walk the stark museum and hallowed grounds you understand how the fate of the free world rested on the shoulders of these young men. A high school mate of my my mother- in-law’s, Galen Kelenberger, stormed Omaha Beach. She hadn’t seen or heard from him in 65 years. She feared he had been killed during the invasion and asked us to research his whereabouts while we were in Normandy.
David and I found out that Galen did invade Omaha Beach. He went on to help liberate the surrounding French towns and made it all the way through enemy territory into Germany. He died in battle three weeks before the war ended. He was subsequently awarded a purple heart and is buried at the Anetican Cemetary in Denmark. Turns out, Galen, a boy from Sabetha, Kansas with no combat experience, fought his way all the way to Germany and sacrificed his life for freedom.
My husband’s father served in the 101st Airborne that invaded at Saint Mere Eglise. His group parachuted into little towns like Saint Mere Eglise to bring supplies and prepare for the Allied invasion. A revered soldier named John Steele jumped from his plane toward Saint Mere Eglise, but upon landing, was caught on the steeple of the town church. He pretended to be dead to avoid German sniper fire. He was captured by the Germans but later escaped. His story is memorialized in the 1962 film, The Longest Day. He still considered a hero in Saint Mere Eglise and is memorialized by a white sheet on the church steeple.
By the time the U.S. troops invaded Normandy, the French people were starving and without basic necessities. The people of Saint Mere Eglise still speak of the warmth and compassion of U.S. soldiers, who shared their personal rations of coffee, candy, and cigarettes. People there still smile when they talk about the Americans. Undoubtedly, a piece of America was left in this little corner of the world.
Giving the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – for the greater good of the free world, these young men must forever be revered for their courage, grace, and strength. May they remain on shores of Normandy forever honored and forever young.