A solemn tribute to lost victors

Cemetery: At the World War II Normandy American Memorial, the fallen are treated with respect and honor.

May 30, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - Fred Rhodes knows how soldiers returning from war can be treated and knows first-hand what American soldiers who served in Vietnam faced. He was one of them.

And although he is 50 years old, he also knows first-hand how the soldiers of World War II were treated far differently, with respect and with honor. The differing homecomings, to him, were due to a basic reason: Vietnam was lost; World War II was won.

"You can walk here and see the honor the soldiers were given and see people lay flowers on the graves and see how grateful they are," he said, sitting in an office at the World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where he tends the graves of 9,386 World War II soldiers, most of them killed during the landings on Normandy.

"I wonder," he said, "how many people will honor the soldiers from the Iraq war."

When President Bush and more than a dozen other world leaders gather here next Sunday for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, it will be part of a commemoration for the soldiers responsible for the beginning of the end of history's deadliest war.

For people like Rhodes, who went through a disastrous war, there is no way to honor those who fell in victory without thinking of those who died in defeat - and those fighting now in the Middle East where success has become difficult to define, let alone achieve.

Elderly people who lived in this area when the Americans, Britons and Canadians swept in 60 years ago arrive at this cemetery daily, propped on canes, pushed in wheelchairs, flowers in hand to lay at the graves of the soldiers who liberated them. Children take part, too, some of them as part of school programs in which they "adopt" individual graves.

Rhodes is aware of today's conflicts and is keenly aware of the diplomatic disputes between France and the United States. He will watch with interest to see how the first German chancellor ever to visit his cemetery will be greeted.

But for him that is all subtext. If history has taught him anything, it is that while there can be honor bestowed upon the fallen, it can be slow in coming, if it comes at all.

"You walk through this cemetery, and you can feel the history, a sense of victory - as terrible as the cost was," Rhodes said. "This is where it happened. You can feel that when you walk. This is where the war was won. You go to the German cemeteries, and you know who lost the war."

There are six German cemeteries in the area, somber grounds that carry the weight of defeat. In the largest, La Cambe German Cemetery, 21,222 soldiers are commemorated, 207 of the unknowns buried in a mass grave under the central tumulus, which is topped by a stone cross.

The known soldiers in this cemetery are buried under flat, black volcanic rock, two and three and four to a grave, many of the tombstones shattered or crumbling, though the grassy grounds are trimmed to precision.

"The war was wrong, but these were soldiers who gave their lives, so we try to keep things nice," said Lucien Tisserand, the French groundskeeper here. "In the German culture, all cemeteries are somber, but this one feels especially sad."

"The American cemetery is almost like a celebration," said Gilles Leservot, whose father was in the French army, as he walked in the empty German cemetery, having just visited the American graves, which were being viewed by scores of people. "This is much more sad, much more in keeping with the German culture - and in keeping with who lost the war."

The American cemetery tended by Rhodes is a gleaming tribute to the lost victors, with 9,386 white crosses and stars of David, lined perfectly symmetrically, gleaming so much that Rhodes rubs sand on the marble for those who would take pictures, to dull the reflection so the names appear on the finished photos.

At its center is a 22-foot bronze statue, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, with the words inscribed, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord."

Though there is no way to escape the reality of so many lost lives, the cemetery also carries an air of glory, of success despite death.

For Rhodes, the way the French visit the cemetery makes up, as much as is possible, for what he missed as a returning soldier from Vietnam.

But, again he pointed out, that may be because of how people are inclined to respond differently to victors, regardless of the bravery of those whose war was lost.

When Rhodes speaks of the time in his war, where the names of the dead arrived in his in-basket so he could send a letter to the families, he halts his words now and again to stop from crying. It almost works.

"Some people remember, and some people forget," he said. "To treat a soldier badly because you think the war was lost. ... Let's change the subject."

He blinked quickly and cleared his throat, but his eyes still welled up.

"Let's talk about how people will treat our soldiers in Iraq," he said. "Soldiers don't get to pick their war. No matter how people feel about the war, tell them to treat the soldiers with respect."

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