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Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time in France studying World War II. I left with an incredible appreciation for our veterans and their sacrifice. This is the story of my visit to the Memorial Cemetery at Omaha Beach. As we celebrate Memorial Day, may we always remember those that paid the ultimate price for freedom.
I woke up a little cranky. The long, bumpy bus ride certainly didn’t help to improve my already sour mood. I knew I shouldn’t have stayed out so late. Seven o’clock was way too early to be traipsing up and down a beach; I really hoped there was a place to get a good, strong cup of coffee nearby.
As the bus turned into a small parking lot, I pulled the headphones out of my ears and tucked my iPod into my little pink bag. Our professor informed us we’d reached our destination. After the bus parked, we all filed out methodically. Surveying the group it seemed as though I wasn’t the only one having a hard time waking up. The morning was gray, cold and solemn. It was cooler than I anticipated. I zipped up my jacket, tucked my hands into my pockets and fell in line with the group.
We made our way out to the rocky beach. The sand was damp and rusted metal beach obstacles still littered the otherwise peaceful surroundings. I stopped and looked out at the quiet, crashing waves and tried to imagine what it must have been like that morning; the morning of the D-Day invasion. The conditions were similar, I thought, cold, wet and early. Thankfully, there were no Nazi soldiers embedded in the cliff side – I was glad that bit of history had been sorted. Standing there a while longer, I tried to absorb my surroundings, the smell of the ocean, the sound of the waves, the feel of sand, the chill of the damp ocean breeze. I reached down and picked up a smooth, black rock and dropped it in my bag. I was sure that rock had sat quietly on Omaha Beach these past sixty years, a silent witness to the gruesome heroism housed here.
I continued up the beach, loosely following the rest of the now scattered group. We made our way to a nice little paved trail that snaked up the hillside. The climb was steep and I found myself slightly out of breath. What must it of felt like to actually survive long enough to make it to shore? Would there even have been time to catch a breath before frantically scaling the blunt cliff, carrying a hundred pound pack, being shot at all the while? It was hard enough just to walk up the scenic little path.
Suddenly, I wasn’t so concerned about coffee anymore.
Embarrassingly out of breath, I finally made it to the top of the cliff. I followed the little path into the cemetery and accompanied the rest of the group to the marble structures up ahead. Even on a gray, rainy day, the cemetery was beautiful. Simple, poignant and beautiful. This cemetery was definitely the largest one I’d visited but there was something undetectably unique about it. Something I hadn’t sensed elsewhere.
To my left was a perfectly manicured garden, behind which a large marble wall silently stood. The names of the missing were carefully carved into the wall, never to be forgotten. I made my way to the center of the marble foyer. There was a small, round chapel to one side with a beautiful mosaic ceiling. The mosaic, set in a bright, sky blue background, depicted an angel comforting a young soldier. On the tastefully elegant black and gold alter was the inscription, “I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish.” Stunning, I thought. In the center of the marble foyer was a huge bronze statue; a statue of a young man bursting up through the water; the spirit of youth. The statue was equally as amazing. Ahead of the statue was a reflecting pool, calm and serene, followed by a deliberately blank lawn. Flanking the reflecting pool and lawn were thousands of little white crosses. I paused and stared.
I met up with the rest of the group around the tall bronze statue. Everyone was unusually quiet and serious this morning, none of the lollygagging or joking around that normally accompanied our outings. A few minutes later, a man who was presumably our guide, walked up. The man explained through a thick French accent the significance of each piece of the monument and each piece of the cemetery. Every detail, down to they type of flower was deliberate and symbolic. The man then explained that we would begin our private memorial ceremony.
Obediently, we turned our, backs to the little white crosses as we listened to our national anthem. Instinctively, I placed my hand over my heart. I had heard this song a thousand times before, but something was markedly different this time. As I listened to the familiar melody, my heart was heavy. It was as though a huge weight pressed hard on my chest. I was overcome with an inexplicable sadness, so burdensome that I could scarcely look up. Unsure of the origins of this emotional onslaught, I tried to focus on the anthem. The wind picked up and I shivered.
The national anthem ended and we were instructed to turn around and face the little white crosses lying in the distance as a pre-recorded gun solute was played. Slowly, I turned around. And that’s when it hit me.
I was instantly awestruck. The quiet little white crosses weren’t just perfectly situated decor on a well manicured landscape – each one represented a man or women who sacrificed their life for freedom. Tears streamed down my face. It was unfathomable that so many died. And each one had a life, a story, parents and friends, dreams and hopes. But there they lay, peacefully, a painfully somber reminder that freedom is never free. The sadness was almost unbearable. I felt weak at the knees. More tears. Why did they have to die? The sadness briefly morphed into anger, and then from anger back into sadness as I carefully surveyed the crosses in the distance.
Not realizing the ceremony was over, I was still standing with my hand over my heart and a tear stained face. As the man began to speak once more, I quickly wiped my eyes and cheeks. He gave each of us a little piece of paper and a yellow rose. I looked at my little piece of paper:
AMERICAN BATTLE MONUMENTS COMMISSION
Name…………………..: Farmer Walter W
Rank……………………: LT COL
Plot, Row, Grave…..…: A 15 31
Serial Number……….: 0-021749
Unit……………………: HQ 416 BOMB GP/L/
State or Country….…: Texas
Date of Death……….: 06 Aug 44
Decorations………….: AM/3 OLC
I bit my quivering lip desperately trying to keep it together. My task was to locate the grave and present it with a flawless yellow rose, “the yellow rose of Texas.” I was certain this was going to be impossible.
Slowly, I started down the steps toward the white crosses that littered the gray horizon. My heart felt heavier as the crosses grew larger. I plodded along, past the reflecting pool, past the blank lawn. The pool was meant to symbolize the navy and the lawn, the army. Finally I reached the first row of crosses. I paused and looked down the row, trying not to read the names etched in each cross. I continued on until I came to row 15.
As I looked at my little piece of paper again, I noticed my hands were trembling. You can do this, I quietly reassured myself. I turned down the row, anxiously looking for my soldier. Grave 28, 29, 30. I stopped again. My heart was racing. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Slowly, I raised my head to confront the little white cross situated perfectly, quietly in front of me.
Engraved so elegantly, so finite was, “Walter W. Farmer.” I bent down to lay the yellow rose across his grave. Tears welled up in my eyes again and I let them go. Walter’s cross was so plain, so simple, so uniform. But I was sure he was unique, I was sure he was strong and bold, brave and tenacious. I was sure he had a beautiful wife that loved him dearly, and sure that he had a favorite baseball team and that he loved apple pie and Christmas. I was sure his men looked up to him and sure he never imagined it would end like this. Just another little white cross among ten thousand others.
I knelt there and cried. Cried for Walter, cried for his wife, cried for his men. I looked around me suddenly aware of the countless other crosses I’d been trying to avoid and cried harder. For all the men and women, many who were only my age when they met their end, I cried. I imagined Walter’s wife humming to herself as she placed fresh flowers in a crystal vase (an anniversary present from Walter). I imagined her looking out the kitchen window to see a foreboding black car pull into the driveway – the news inevitable. The tears poured down my face as I knelt there feeling helpless, sad and empty. There was nothing I could do, nothing I could change. Here, forever, lies Walter W. Farmer, a quiet testimony to the cost of freedom.
I don’t know how long I sat there and cried. My mind lost in disconsolate thoughts. Finally, when I’d exhausted my tears, I got up and began heading back toward the marble monument. “Good-bye Walter,” I whispered.
As I passed the pool, I noticed a wrinkled old man heading in my direction. At his side was a younger woman, his daughter perhaps. He had a cane in one hand and the woman had his other arm, assisting him with each step. I looked at the old man and saw his baseball cap. The embroidery and pins adorning his cap meant one thing – he was a veteran.
As they came closer, the little old man’s eyes met mine. I froze mid-step. Though his body was worn and ragged, his eyes were bright and youthful.
“Hi there” he said.
“Hello.” My voice cracked as I spoke. I tried to look away, but my eyes were transfixed on his.
“Oh, you must be an American,” he guessed, smiling.
“Yes sir, I’m in college and I’m here studying World War II.” I squeaked, my voice still weak.
“Wow, a young gal like you, all the way here to study The War.” He paused. “Well, what do you think?”
What did I think? I tried to respond but the words were caught in my throat. As I stood there, desperately searching for a response I felt the tears flooding down my face once again. Not even cognizant of what I was doing, I walked towards the man and wrapped my arms around his fragile shoulders. Burying my head in his warm chest, the tears continued to flow. “Thank you” I muttered. The little old man returned the embrace and began to cry softly. We stood there, crying, hugging. Maybe he knew Walter, maybe he was one of the brave souls who survived that bloody day. How could he bear to come back to this place? How painful this must be for him, knowing full well the significance of each, elegant white cross.
Eventually I stepped back. He looked down and quickly cleared the tears from his strong, weathered face. I looked to see the woman next to him had been crying too. She was smiling at me through her tears. The little old man stood up tall, gently looked me in the eyes and nodded an approving nod. I knew he was holding his words for fear of loosing composure. I grinned at him and went to meet my group.
The rest of the day was a haze. My mind was still at Omaha Beach, with Walter, with the little old man, with the little white crosses. I lay in bed that night staring through the blank darkness. I wondered what it must have been like then. What it would be like to watch my friends go to war, wondering if they were ever going to return. What it would be like to know the whole world was fighting each other and that our brave men and women were paying the ultimate sacrifice for peace, for freedom.
Today had changed me, I was certain of that. I felt older, jaded and more appreciative of the men and women whose stories I would never know. I promised myself I would not forget them, Walter, his wife, the little old man and the others. I would not take for granted what they had done for me. I would not let their sacrifice be in vain. Exhausted and satisfied in my resolve, I drifted to sleep.