Seventy-five years ago some 150,000 troops landed on French beaches to roll back the Nazi menace. On the very first day 10,000 of these young men died. All this has just been commemorated again – for the 75th time. Every year however we have fewer and fewer veterans from that day left to pay tribute to.
Soon it will all be a distant memory. And one vital question that remains unanswered is this: is the West today capable of raising up such an army again? Would we have enough young people who are brave enough, manly enough, and willing enough to sacrifice their very lives for a cause greater than themselves?
Those are some very good questions, and one is fearful of ever getting affirmative responses. As one meme making the rounds on the social media puts it:
1944: 18-year-olds stormed enemy beaches, parachuted behind enemy lines, and charged into German machine gun fire.
2019: 18-year-olds need safe spaces, blankies, bubbles, colouring books, gun free zones, and counselling for ‘ptsd’ caused by opposing views and offensive words.
Indeed, 75 years ago young adults had to leave the safe space of their landing craft to hit the beaches, knowing that many of them would not even make it to the beach alive. And that is exactly what happened. So many were gunned down in the opening moments of the landing.
But today most young people have a hard time simply getting out of bed. These virtue-signalling weaklings would be no match for any foe in any war. Such a marked contrast to those brave young men who gave everything 75 years ago. Their stories must never be forgotten. We must keep retelling their stories – stories of heroism, bravery and self-sacrifice.
Thankfully US President Donald Trump did that just hours ago in a speech given at Normandy. He reminded us of these heroic 18-year-olds who never came back home. Or of those who did, but with deeply scared memories. Even Trump’s usual enemies in the media and politics have conceded that this was a very good and very moving speech.
But let me quote parts of it. As mentioned, he gave stories of some of these brave young warriors. Here is one of them:
The GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier, but the fate of the world. Colonel George Taylor, whose 16th Infantry Regiment would join in the first wave, was asked: What would happen if the Germans stopped right then and there, cold on the beach — just stopped them?
What would happen? This great American replied: “Why, the 18th Infantry is coming in right behind us. The 26th Infantry will come on too. Then there is the 2nd Infantry Division already afloat. And the 9th Division. And the 2nd Armored. And the 3rd Armored. And all the rest. Maybe the 16th won’t make it, but someone will.”
One of those men in Taylor’s 16th Regiment was Army medic Ray Lambert. Ray was only 23, but he had already earned three Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars fighting in North Africa and Sicily, where he and his brother Bill, no longer with us, served side by side.
In the early morning hours, the two brothers stood together on the deck of the USS Henrico, before boarding two separate Higgins landing craft. “If I don’t make it,” Bill said, “please, please take care of my family.” Ray asked his brother to do the same.
Of the 31 men on Ray’s landing craft, only Ray and 6 others made it to the beach. There were only a few of them left. They came to the sector right here below us. “Easy Red” it was called. Again and again, 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. He woke up the next day on a cot beside another badly wounded soldier. He looked over and saw his brother Bill. They made it. They made it. They made it. At 98 years old, Ray is here with us today, with his fourth Purple Heart and his third Silver Star from Omaha. (Applause.) Ray, the free world salutes you. (Applause.) Thank you, Ray. (Applause.)
And one more moving story from his speech:
Down on the beach, Captain Joe Dawson, the son of a Texas preacher, led Company G through a minefield to a natural fold in the hillside, still here. Just beyond this path to my right, Captain Dawson snuck beneath an enemy machine gun perch and tossed his grenades. Soon, American troops were charging up “Dawson’s Draw.” What a job he did. What bravery he showed.
Lieutenant Spalding and the men from Company E moved on to crush the enemy strongpoint on the far side of this cemetery, and stop the slaughter on the beach below. Countless more Americans poured out across this ground all over the countryside. They joined fellow American warriors from Utah beach, and Allies from Juno, Sword, and Gold, along with the airborne and the French patriots.
Private First Class Russell Pickett, of the 29th Division’s famed 116th Infantry Regiment, had been wounded in the first wave that landed on Omaha Beach. At a hospital in England, Private Pickett vowed to return to battle. “I’m going to return,” he said. “I’m going to return.”
Six days after D-Day, he rejoined his company. Two thirds had been killed already; many had been wounded, within 15 minutes of the invasion. They’d lost 19 just from small town of Bedford, Virginia, alone. Before long, a grenade left Private Pickett again gravely wounded. So badly wounded. Again, he chose to return. He didn’t care; he had to be here.
He was then wounded a third time, and laid unconscious for 12 days. They thought he was gone. They thought he had no chance. Russell Pickett is the last known survivor of the legendary Company A. And, today, believe it or not, he has returned once more to these shores to be with his comrades. Private Pickett, you honor us all with your presence. (Applause.) Tough guy. (Laughter.)
Could the West today give us such committed, dedicated, brave and selfless young men? That is a very good question indeed. To help highlight the importance of that question, let me finish with another terrific speech given to honour the fallen on that day.
Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith, and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge – and pray God we have not lost it – that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.
Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne cultural commentator.
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