At Normandy, Bush honors those killed in wars past and present

`The day will never come when America forgets,' he tells veterans of D-Day

May 28, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - The old man looked to the sea and recalled his youth, when he clambered out of a boat and slipped into water that came up to his neck and struggled through the tide to Utah Beach on D-Day.

He searched the sky, slate-gray and laced with rain, and remembered how he and his men moved inland, behind cattle, to make sure mines were cleared.

And finally, George Memoly looked across the vast green lawn with its sorrowful rows of white marble headstones, Latin crosses and stars of David, and reflected on a generation's war and a nation's loss.

"When you see those crosses, oh, I really feel bad," said Memoly, a silver-haired 83-year- old from Palm Beach, Fla.

Yesterday, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, veterans, soldiers, civilians, politicians and an American president came together to honor the fallen on Memorial Day.

War, remembrance and loss are contained in the 172-acre Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where 9,386 U.S. war dead are buried beneath markers that face home, to the west, to America.

It was through one gracefully arranged row of headstones that President Bush walked alone to a podium, the English Channel to his left, a crowd before him, early afternoon on the European continent, early morning in America, Memorial Day.

Speaking in "a quiet corner of France" to an audience that included French President Jacques Chirac, Bush said: "All that come to a place like this feel the enormity of the loss."

Bush gave a poetic speech that captured the mood of a still and sad place, and caught the mood of a time when the United States is engaged in a new war against terrorism.

"For some military families in America and in Europe, the grief is recent," Bush said. "They can know, however, that the cause is just. And like other generations, these sacrifices have spared many others from tyranny and sorrow."

Bush sought to tie together two continents bound by blood, war and shared sacrifice. It was a sacrifice felt most vividly on Omaha Beach, scene of fierce battles on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when U.S. soldiers emerged from the surf, faced enemy fire and survived by scaling cliffs.

It was a place, Bush said, where "the new world came back to liberate the old."

He emphasized that the continents remain fused in a new war against terrorism.

"Our security is still bound up together in a trans-Atlantic alliance, with soldiers in many uniforms defending the world from terrorists at this very hour," Bush said.

In an earlier speech outside the Norman church at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French town liberated from the Nazis in World War II, Chirac set the stage for Bush's theme of shared sacrifices and values.

"We will never forget," Chirac said. "We will never forget these fields of honor, these thousands of men, often very young, who gave their lives for the liberation against barbarism. I salute their memory."

"France knows what it owes America," he said. "In this region loaded with history, I will tell you of our gratitude; ... today, too, our two countries are still fighting together against terrorist barbarism which on the morning of the 11th of September so cruelly put America into mourning."

The old soldiers agreed with the thrust of the presidential statements. But their war, they acknowledged, was far different from the war the United States now faces.

"In World War II, we knew what we were fighting against, we were fighting against a visible army," said Memoly, who was a captain with the Army 1st Engineers.

Today's foes are stealthy, Memoly acknowledged. But then, as now, they can be beaten, he said.

It was the first time Memoly had seen the Normandy cemetery, the first time he had been back in France since taking his first steps off the strip of sand at Utah Beach and making a journey through Europe's battlefields to Germany. He was a young man then, fresh from Staten Island, N.Y.

He's an old man now, retired from a job as an auto dealer, head of a family with three children and eight grandchildren.

"I wanted to see where I had landed," he said. "It brings back a lot of memories. Sad memories. Exciting memories. And a lot of fear."

John Heller of Westlake Village, Calif., recalled the fear, too, from when he served as a corporal and jeep driver with the 4th Division, 22nd Regiment, 1st Battalion. He, too, was on his first trip to France since the war, a birthday present from his daughter. He turns 80 today.

"It's a blur," Heller said.

"I never knew what my dad had been through," said his daughter, Michele Heller. "I find it amazing that he survived."

George A. Itzel, 84, of Catonsville was here, too, making his annual pilgrimage to landing beaches that defined his youth and carried him into old age.

Itzel was a platoon leader with Company B of the 147th Engineers when he led 44 men ashore at Omaha Beach.

"Our mission was to get ashore, get the beach organized, get the infantry inland, assist the casualties and wounded," he said.

Early on, he said, the men knew they were engaged in something historic, a history they tried to keep alive with a memorial created from rubble and placed at a nearby chateau that remains today.

To Itzel, returning to Normandy is a journey of "nostalgia and appreciation."

"In 2004, it will be our 60th anniversary," he said. "We may have 25 or 30 of our veterans over here."

But the old soldiers from World War II are dying off. Soon, too, the firsthand memories of the dead of Normandy will disappear.

"The day will come when no one is left who knew them, when no visitor to this cemetery can stand before a grave remembering a face and a voice," Bush said.

"The day will never come when America forgets them," he added. "We will always remember what they did here and what they gave here for the future of humanity."

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