Does Anyone Remember the Great Allied Victory?
Five years ago I went with a group of British and American veterans to Normandy to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings. On the special train coach in the fog and cold on the way from Paris to Omaha Beach were hundreds of veterans and their families, but one could hear a pin drop. The men with their hearing aids and worn canes and wispy white hair sat deep in contemplation; I could barely imagine the horrors conjured up by this journey and the sorrow they had carried with them for six decades.
Many of these frail men, some in their eighties, had never been back since 1944 and wept quietly as they found the gravestones of their platoon members, boys whose dreams had been frozen forever on that French shore in Nazi-occupied Europe. On that day of my pilgrimage in 2004 Presidents Chirac and Bush gave moving speeches and several British and American veterans stood at attention by the battery units as the twenty-one gun salute boomed across the countryside. Traveling around the remote farmland one saw endless little Union Jacks and American flags outside cottages, and one was keenly aware that these tattered emblems may have survived from V-E Day itself in 1945.
Perhaps I am feeling D-Day so very deeply in 2009 because of the relentless battering Americans have taken on the chin overseas in recent years. I am also aware of the fact that there has been minimal mention of V-E Day on British radio or television and there has even been an uncomfortable reluctance to allocate government or National Lottery funds to take the dwindling contingent of D-Day veterans over to Normandy on June 6. That there was any public discourse about this at all has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many veterans and their kin.
In 2007 I visited Madingley Cemetery, a graveyard of 3,800 American airmen with a wall commemorating some 5,100 American pilots and coast guardsmen who disappeared or died protecting Britain's shores. At Duxford Airbase there is a plaque commemorating the lives of 30,000 American airmen who died during the Second World War. Soon it will be June 6. At this time of year, because of the vivid memories my mother left behind about the dead of D-Day, I cannot sleep and often drift off only when the light is clearly visible behind my curtains. The birdsong is sweet. In my native U.S. I hope the television networks will remember the men who fell in that terrible carnage in Normandy, but it seems of late the British networks refrain from dwelling on it.
In November 2007 I attended a conference in Newcastle-upon-Tyne that happened to take place over Remembrance weekend. One of the conference speakers, an Anglo-Muslim activist, said she had to make it clear to this audience that she regarded the pilots of wartime in as negative a light as the audience might view a suicide bomber who had strapped himself with explosives. I could barely contain myself. I jumped up and pointed out to her that had those young British and American pilots not succeeded, Hitler would have taken over the world and she would most likely not have been here today.
Lest any of us forget the sacrifice made by the men and women of V-E Day and of D-Day as we scurry around the supermarket, let us stop for a moment to remember and to thank them in our hearts. The freedom we enjoy today in this green and pleasant land called Britain, in America, and around the world is the gift they bestowed upon us; their supreme sacrifice guaranteed that democracy would endure.