As a child living in a small Kansas town, my attachment to World II was strong and, I admit, romantic.
I drew war cartoons in pencil on cheap white paper. Most of them were about air battles. Hitler being shot dead. Japanese “zeros” in flames, the slanty-eyed pilots writhing in pain. U.S. soldiers always won of course. They never bled. I delivered the cartoons to neighbors while standing on the back of a tricycle pedaled by a friend. I folded them up like a newspaper and threw them into the yards.
On summer evenings after supper, my parents would often go out into the front yard of our cottage and listen to war reports on the radio, which was set up in a bedroom window. I don’t remember anything at all about the reports. But I do remember the excitement I felt. And I was content, if nothing else because we were a family, all together and safe, and I was rolling around on a green lawn.
Perhaps we were out in the yard on June 6, 1944, listening to Ed Murrow describe D-Day on the Normandy beaches in France. Hemingway observed from a ship in the English Channel. Maybe Murrow was there too. Perhaps the reporting covered some of the blood-letting on Omaha Beach.
Jump ahead 71 years. It is September 2015, and I am shuffling through the gray sand and rock of Omaha Beach. Nebra is walking with me but I am enveloped in my own world. I wonder if I am stepping on a spot where someone died or was wounded. I wonder if his spirit lingers around this spot. I can’t say what Nebra is thinking. Maybe she is thinking the very same things and of her Nebraska hometown of Omaha.
Omaha was one of five D-Day landing beaches. It along with Utah Beach is where U.S. troops landed. You hardly ever hear of Utah Beach. “It was a cakewalk,” Gen. Omar Bradley was quoted as saying of Utah. On the other hand, Bradley said, Omaha Beach was “a nightmare.” Many U.S. casualties, many deaths.
From the beach, we walk uphill in green grass growing in sand toward high forests where German soldiers fired down on the beach. Hedge rows abound. They carry red fruit, like cherries. It is idyllic. We pass the Visitors Center and finally arrive at the American Cemetery, the one with all the white crosses overlooking the now tranquil blue sea. The cemetery you likely see in magazines.
The crosses are perfectly aligned. Even diagonally. The lawn is immaculate. It has been freshly mowed and a crew of men use mechanical blowers to disperse the clippings. Another crew using stand-up tools snip blades of grass around the crosses where mowers can’t reach. Crowds of visitors ease along paved pathways. They seem solemn, reverent. It is no place for joy.
Some venture out into the field of crosses to look more closely at the names, the dates of death, the home states. I search for crosses from my native state of Kansas, and find a couple. I locate the grave of Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Teddy Jr. He was 57 with a heart problem and insisted on being there on D-Day. He died on July 12 of ’44.
We tread along the paved path away from the sea. An American flag is ahead. I am startled to see it flying at half-mast atop a tall pole. Nebra reminds me of the date. September 11. The 14th anniversary of 9/11. Another layer of emotion sweeps over us. We stop to take photos.
That night we come back to our comfortable room with neatly-trimmed lawns and orchards in back, and we stream the film, “Saving Private Ryan,” the one with Tom Hanks playing Capt. Miller. It is sad and glorious at the same time. Men on a mission, trying to do something humane in a crazy world of bombs and gunfire, blood and gory deaths.
I guess I will always hold fond those memories of long ago. Out there on the green Bermuda grass of a safe summer, with my parents, listening to accounts of war amid the static of poor radio reception.
But now, having seen Omaha Beach, and truly understanding the dreadful price paid there, all the young men who may have changed the world but died there, that has left those childhood memories with a far less sentimental view of those years.
I wonder, knowing what I now know, what changes I would have made to those cartoons.