D-Day and the men & women who never came home

American military cemetery in the Netherlands

American military cemetery in the Netherlands

I was only 13 years old on D-Day, June 6, 1944 but I was a news junkie even then and my ears were glued to the radio for updates. At that age, the tragedy of war is overpowered by the fascination with the strategy and tactics of conflict and I could barely wait for each day's newspaper to see the latest maps that detailed the advancement of the more than 100,000 soldiers in the first wave who made it through the hell of that 60 mile front that spanned the French coast.

It was many months later when I saw my older sister crying for the first time that the downside of war hit home. Her boyfriend had been killed. I knew him as the guy down the block who was fun and loved to play ball and kid around a lot. We'd never see him again. He was one of the more than 125,000 war dead, buried in Europe who never came home.

A  jump of some 40 years is necessary to continue the story. It was at a travel industry luncheon in 1988 when I met Guill. van Lijf, head of the tourist bureau in Maastricht, the southern most city in the Netherlands. An invitation to visit his community was readily accepted and while there he took us to the only American Military cemetery in the Netherlands, just a few miles out of the city. Guill was just a small boy when troops of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division roared through the streets on their drive to the Roer river in Germany in WW II. An American soldier gave Guill the first piece of chocolate he ever tasted.

Three months after D-Day, The U.S. First Army had crossed Luxembourg; captured Liege, Belgium; reached the German frontier at Aachen and entered the  Netherlands, near Maastricht. Residents of this community have never forgotten the American troops that finally gave them their freedom. In 1944 a battlefield cemetery, one of the first to be used for the internment of American soldiers who fell on German soil was established. The 65.5 acres of what had previously been farm land has become the resting place for young men who gave their lives in World  War II. The land was given to the United States in perpetuity as a token of appreciation by the Dutch government.

On entering the grounds surrounding the Court of Honor, are large maps, engraved in stone, depicting the military campaigns in Europe and then in  emotional almost heart stopping moment you see 8,301 Italian marble headstones in a large field, surrounded by a Hawthorne hedge with American Oak trees lining the central mall. The Star of David mark 178 Jewish burials and Latin crosses all the others including 106 unknowns. Particularly touching are no less than 40 instances where two brothers lie buried side by side.

I noticed many graves had fresh flowers decorating the site. Guill explained that many Netherlanders had "adopted" a boy and on his birthday or anniversary of his death, they make a special trip to the cemetery for a moment of remembrance. Many stop at the chapel on the grounds where residents have also contributed a handsome lighting fixture that is suspended from the ceiling, a silver flower vase on the alter as well as a wrought iron candelabra.

Is there something to be learned from D-Day? Yes. I recall reading a story some years ago about a statement that the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had prepared in case the invasion failed. In it he took full responsibility for anything that went wrong. His statement did not seek to make excuses or deflect blame in any way.  He took full responsibility -  the sign of a real leader.

Our daily actions have far less dramatic impact than the D-Day mission, yet people constantly try to deflect responsibility for their actions. Today, spin doctors work to reframe every situation in the best possible light.  That's sad. Unless we're willing to take responsibility for our choices, we will never learn to make better choices. Learn from the D-Day invasion. Always accept full responsibility for your choices.

Filed under: Opinion

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