COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France—June 6, 1944, is D-Day, the date of the beginning of the greatest invasion—and the greatest liberation—in history, the date Allied forces landed in Europe, in Normandy, France, to start, finally, the beginning of the end of World War II. June 6 is half a calendar year away from December 7, the date that lives in infamy, the date of the bombing of the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor by the forces of imperial Japan that brought the US into World War II in 1941.
This year, the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the celebration at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer was particularly poignant: most of the veterans of World War II are in their nineties now, and at least one, Sidney Walton, is a hundred. Many—no, most—will not be at the next great remembrance of the D-Day landing.
The weather in Normandy is uncertain, always, as General Eisenhower discovered in 1944 (the landing had been postponed from June 5), and as the crowd that attended the ceremony at the American Cemetery this year discovered. Rain was predicted for the entire week. The prediction was almost accurate: it was cold, rainy, and bleak on the morning of June 5 and cold, rainy, and bleak again on the morning of June 7.
But on June 6, there was no rain: the day was sunny, though cool.
What a lucky break for the fifteen thousand attendees at the ceremony, including most especially the 170 veterans of World War II, for whom six hours of inclement weather would likely have been more than an inconvenience.
Not that they are the kind of people who would have minded a mere inconvenience or two. People whose lives are shaped by the inconveniences the soldiers who landed on the Normandy beaches encountered that day tend not to be bothered by trials and tribulations that so upset members of subsequent generations. Attendees at the ceremony were told of some of those inconveniences by President Trump, who gave one of the best speeches of his presidency that day.
Perhaps it was easy. Trump didn’t write it, of course. Most presidents can’t write the kind of prose that is appropriate for a D-Day ceremony—Ronald Reagan was an exception. But Trump delivered his remarks well, and all the more impressively because he is not a polished orator. The stories he told almost tell themselves—stories of brave boys doing brave deeds on a bloody beach, but now old men molded by time into old heroes, legendary heroes even, but not just heroes in the history books of legends, but old heroes actually sitting behind the president as he spoke.
Trump told the story of, among other heroes, Ray Lambert, a mere twenty-three years old that June. Only Ray and five others from their Higgins landing craft made it to the beach that morning. The fire was intense. “Again and again,” as the president told the story, “Ray ran back into the water. He dragged out one man after another. He was shot through the arm. His leg was ripped open by shrapnel. His back was broken. He nearly drowned. He had been on the beach for hours, bleeding and saving lives, when he finally lost consciousness.” At the age of twenty-three.
Now, seventy-five years later, ninety-eight-year-old Ray Lambert was seated, in real life, behind the president, with a number of his D-Day comrades, five of whom, only minutes before, had been awarded the Legion of Honor by President Macron who had spoken just before President Trump.
Not all the veterans in attendance at the ceremony had fought in Normandy. Some were in the Pacific theater, including the now hundred-year-old Sidney Walton, and former Senator–Undersecretary–Judge James L. Buckley, age ninety-six. Buckley had spoken the night before the ceremony of being in a fleet of LSTs (landing ship tanks, known as “long slow targets”) while a kamikaze pilot flew over the fleet so low the men on the ships could see his face. Why had Buckley, and tens or hundreds of thousands of others, enlisted? That’s what men did in those days.
After D-Day, Buckley and tens of thousands of other naval troops were slated to go to the Pacific on impossible missions (they were considered expendable) but were spared, along with millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians, when President Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a decision still contested by a few today, though less so by those Americans and Japanese who didn’t perish in battle, and their progeny.
Yes, war is Hell—though it is perhaps easy for civilians, and maybe soldiers too, to forget that fact in the pageantry of the D-Day remembrance: the military bands playing, presidents Macron and Trump flying in on their helicopters, the singing of national anthems, huge television screens, military men in handsome uniforms, and fly-overs by amazing aircraft.
But the many stories of glorious heroism that President Trump told were sobering nevertheless, despite the pageantry: stark reminders of courage, and death, like the 9,388 grave markers, crosses and stars of David, spread out across the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
Grave markers spread out across a manicured field with a to-die-for view of the sea.
Lest we forget.