By William Zinsser
May 27, 2011
When I think about Memorial Day my mind goes back to an afternoon I spent at the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach. On that vast plain of 9,386 white marble crosses, every day is Memorial Day.
It was the spring of 1994, and I was there to write a magazine article about the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. I knew that the media would reconstruct the larger saga of D-day: the armies massed in England, the mighty armada crossing the Channel, the troops wading ashore in a hail of Nazi gunfire from pillboxes on the cliff. I decided instead to focus on the last resting place of the men who died in that assault, which finally reversed the tide of World War II in Europe; I was a veteran of that war myself. I wanted to find out how the cemetery exerts its continuing power and what it might have to tell me.
The cemetery occupies a tract of American soil, donated to the United States by the French government, just above Omaha Beach–a landscape distilled to its purest elements of earth, sea, and sky. The crosses are arrayed in perfect symmetry and are immaculately kept. I began my visit by walking among the graves, reading the names of the dead. All around me, other visitors were making the same slow journey, leaving flowers, saying prayers. The date June 6, 1944, recurred with terrible frequency; for many of those young men, their first day of combat was also their last.
I went to the top of the bluff to see where all those men had come ashore. From above it looked like any other beach except that the tide went a long way out; I remembered that for part of D-day the disembarking troops had to cross a long stretch of tidal flats. I found a path that led down the cliff in a steep descent. At the bottom it wound between some dunes and deposited me on Omaha Beach. Sacred ground. I turned around and looked back and tried to imagine how it felt to be expected to capture that hill. Blind fear was all that came to mind.
I was joined by two men of about my age who appeared to be thinking the same thoughts. One of them told me that on D-day he had landed on nearby Utah Beach. The other had served in the Pacific with the Seabees, and, of the two men, he was more in awe of the feat of taking the beach. Later I mentioned this to the superintendent of the cemetery, Joseph Rivers.
“That happens very often,” he said, “and it’s one of the overlooked aspects of this place. Combatants from other theaters of war come here, and it brings it all back for them. They associate that water and those cliffs with their own memories, and they know how hard it was to take that bluff. I find it very touching.”
Many young people in their early twenties, the same age as the men who fought on D-day, come from all over the world to visit the cemetery. “Just this week,” Rivers told me, “I got letters from students in Sweden, Italy, and Brazil asking for more information. That happens a lot after a visit. The girl from Sweden asked if I could give her the name of a veteran who had fought here. She wanted to correspond with him and find out what the invasion was like for someone her age. ‘Did it make you a better person? What was your life like afterward?’ Young people ask that kind of question. To me their curiosity is comforting because most schools don’t teach this history, or it’s kept hidden. These students say they were never given the amplitude of what happened here.”
I began to glimpse what I had come to find out. The cemetery is infinitely useful. It fills whatever emotional needs are brought to it. Its most merciful gift, I think, is the gift of absolution. Rivers told me he had recently met a man who served on D-Day with a naval combat demolition unit, clearing mines and other underwater hazards. “He was walking among the graves with his two grown grandsons, both of whom were doctors, and he was very tense, very nervous. He had blocked the whole D-Day experience. He said, ‘My wife didn’t want to hear about it and my in-laws didn’t want to hear about it, so I’ve been very passive about the whole thing.’ Suddenly he opened up–for the first time in 49 years. Everything started coming back to him. He just had to get it out, and as he talked his whole frame of mind changed, and he said he felt good and he realized that he had had a satisfying life. The two grandsons stared at him in amazement. They had never seen that grandfather before.”
“When Americans who fought in Normandy come here,” Rivers said, “they see that this cemetery has given nobility to the men who died, and it relieves some of their survivors’ guilt. Most people don’t give themselves a long-range destiny; life is kind of a rambling thing. But here they look at those graves and it hits them: those men died for a set of values and they still represent those values.”
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.