The grave of U.S. Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. McNair was killed in Normandy, July 25, 1944. [Photo by me, 1995.]

June 6, 1944

Seventy years ago today, the Allied liberation of Western Europe began. The first paratroops had jumped in shortly after midnight, and soldiers rushed ashore on the various Normandy beaches starting around 6:30 AM. On a stretch near a small town called Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, on what was codenamed “Omaha Beach,” Captain Richard Merrill, 2nd Ranger Battalion, remembered:

I was the first one out. The seventh man was the next one to get across the beach without being hit. All the ones in-between were hit. Two were killed; three were injured. That’s how lucky you had to be.

The exact invasion date had naturally been kept secret. Thus America awoke to the news. Hours after the landings, the President of the United States spoke to an anxious country:

Indeed, some of those soldiers of whom President Roosevelt spoke – such as those killed alongside Captain Merrill – of course did not return:

The grave of U.S. Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. McNair was killed in Normandy, July 25, 1944. He was the highest ranking U.S. soldier to die in combat in the Second World War. [Photo by me, 1995.]

The grave of U.S. Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. McNair was killed in Normandy, July 25, 1944. He was the highest ranking U.S. soldier to die in combat in the Second World War. [Photo by me, 1995.]

Graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. [Photo by my, 1995.]

Graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. [Photo by me, 1995.]

Colleville-sur-Mer is merely perhaps the best-known resting place for those who fell. The American Battle Monuments Commission has been responsible for new U.S. military cemeteries since 1923. Its web site lists all of them around the world, and also includes the names of those interred. It is well-worth a thoughtful browse.

And if as an American you ever get a chance to visit in person, you should consider doing so.

“A German bomb hit No. 257….”

We spent Bank Holiday Monday – which coincided, by chance, with U.S. Memorial Day – unexpectedly on the receiving end of impromptu family recollections of the Second World War in Britain. Over our London lunch table, my in-laws (aided by red wine) shared some childhood memories with us. We’d heard some before; but others were new to us. Here are a few particularly poignant ones:

Father-in-law: “We got one egg a week, for three of us. My mother would boil it and carefully slice it three ways.”

Mother-in-law [to my wife]: “Your father’s father was out in Patricia Bay, with those Canadian women chasing after him. He had a lovely war.”

Father-in-law: “Uncle B’s tank was hit by enemy fire in Tunisia. He spent months in hospital there. As soon as he was better, they sent him back out to fight. He ended up at Monte Cassino, but he never talked about it. It must’ve been hell.”

Mother-in-law: “My father stationed in Scotland would send us food packages. I just remember meat. At the cinema once we saw an American film in which children were sitting at a dinner table. One complained to the mother, ‘Oh, no, not chicken again.’ The whole cinema groaned. What we all would have given to have had a chicken dinner.”

Father-in-law: “Uncle M. trained with the RAF in South Africa. He qualified as a pilot just as the war ended. Lucky devil. Saw no fighting.”

Mother-in-law: “I don’t remember fear. Once I remember a ‘V’ bomb hitting not far away. We didn’t think anything of it. Maybe we were so young, we didn’t understand. It was a lark.”

Father-in-law: “At night, the Luftwaffe would fly overhead, and the air defence had these huge searchlights all around London that illuminated as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, they’d spot a German bomber, and our boys would knock it out of the sky. They were kids, just like our lads. 18, 19, 20 years old.”

Mother-in-law: “I spent the beginning of the war with my aunt in Ireland. But my older sister didn’t go. My mother finally sent for me to come back to London. [Tears in her eyes, she added] She believed if we were going to die, she wanted us all to die together.”

Father-in-law: “You can’t imagine how terrifying it was to see the RAF dogfighting in daylight with the Germans. You would see planes circle and circle, leaving their wakes behind them. If one of them went down, we always cheered when we knew it was the bloody enemy.”

Father-in-law: “A German bomb hit No. 257, across the road from our house. It blew out all of our windows. My mother screamed to us to get under the stairs.”

 Free Stock Photo: Illustration of St Pauls Cathedral in London, England.


Free Stock Photo: Illustration of St Pauls Cathedral in London, England.

Mother-in-law: “We wouldn’t have won the war without the Americans….”

Me: “….We were a bit late turning up.”

Mother-in-law: “What mattered is you came and we couldn’t have won without you.”

As soon as I could, I jotted down what I could recall of what they had said. You don’t hear stuff like that twice sometimes. What one may learn during what starts out as an innocuous meal….

“Disengaging” From “The World”?

On one hand, we had heard for years that the U.S. was too engaged; it was the world’s policeman, or the world’s cowboy, or the imperialist. On the other hand, we had been told, and continue to hear, that the U.S. must be prepared to intervene anywhere, anytime, within, apparently, minutes. All that is worth bearing in mind, as we read this by Peter Foster, in The Telegraph:

….the current geopolitical landscape, which is being shaped by a “notable decline” in US foreign policy characterized by Barack Obama’s ultra-pragmatism in foreign affairs….

….the idea that the US is both challenged by a rising China but also withdrawing from the world, [is] creating deep uncertainty among old allies over how far the US is prepared to underwrite the existing world order….

….in a new world order where everyone now doubts where they stand, the US remains confident it can look after itself. But as the US disengages, Britain, particularly a Britain drifting away from Europe, should be much less sanguine.

I never know quite how to approach such talk. “The idea” underlying the piece’s premise is simply wrong: the U.S. is not “disengaging,” and will not, from “the world.” Americans are not living in “1920”. They know that.

Rather it appears that after a decade of wars and economic upheaval at home, Americans are currently just a bit weary. In short, they are not “disengaging” so much as resisting finding themselves drawn front and center into seemingly every dispute – especially military – everywhere. However, even if their leaders occasionally blunder, Americans earnestly wish their U.S. always to be a solid, reliable ally.

Early today, RAF Lakenheath reported sadly:

1/8/2014 – ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England — Four Airmen were killed in a U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crash at about 6 p.m. yesterday near Salthouse on the Norfolk coast.

Names of the Airmen killed in the crash will be released 24 hours after next-of-kin notifications.

U.S. military officials are coordinating the recovery efforts with the U.K. police and the Ministry of Defence. The authorities have secured the crash site and established a cordon….

Almost 6,000 U.S personnel are at RAF Lakenheath. Britain remains, for Americans, an extraordinary ally and friend. Despite what some journalists have convinced themselves, that is not changing anytime soon.