A Lonely Cross in the Normandy Cemetery - D-Day remembered

Cherryfield, ME

A Lonely Cross

It was a lonely cross engraved: “Known but to God.” Remembering the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2019.
Last June, 2018, my wife and I visited the U.S. military cemetery on the bluff overlooking Utah Beach on the Normandy coast where the D-Day invasion took place 75 years ago. We were in France with the Washington County Children’s Chorus who were on a singing tour. I had brought my beat-up Boy Scout bugle with the goal of sounding taps in that sacred place. There were tour buses, a huge car park and easily several hundred visitors and no quiet or personal place for me to sound taps. Wanting to get away from the crowds, I followed the walkway along the bluff overlooking the English Channel to the farthest end of the cemetery, passing row upon rows of white crosses and a few Stars of David, each bearing witness to the soldier buried in that sacred ground. he crosses were arranged so that they ended on that single lonely cross at an apex of that remote section. I was alone with that unknown soldier and no other visitors in sight. I took a deep breath, breathed a solemn prayer and stood at bugler attention to sound the very best taps I could muster. This unknown’s grave was the farthest grave from the main memorial, so I figured he never got to hear taps where he lay during the various memorial programs over the years. As I meditated in that shaded glen, I experienced a feeling of awe and was reminded that freedom is not free. I also sounded taps on each of the American beaches – Utah and Omaha, on Pont du Hoc for the Rangers, at several of the division memorials and at other locations. Taps caught people by surprise, but many stood at attention with veterans saluting. This year, we returned to Normandy for both Memorial Day and a week later for the D-Day memorial programs. The programs were on a grand, once-in-a-lifetime scale compared to that simple solo of 2018. It seemed as half the Allied world had turned out, with hundreds of WWII vehicles and thousands of re-enactors in WWII uniforms. The streets and houses of the Normandy villages were covered in U.S., French, British and Canadian flags. It was like a replay of what the French call “Liberation Summer.” The crowd's focus was on the hundred or so D-Day veterans in attendance – heroes all. They were thanked over and over.
The beginning of the end of the “Big One,” as many veterans called WWII, was Liberation Summer – 1944. Five years ago, a huge celebration of remembrance took place in France remembering the 70th anniversary. Many WWII veterans attended. This year, their ranks will be significantly thinned. A million people assembled on the western French coast to commemorate the opening event of Liberation Summer, the Normandy invasion. D-Day, June 6, 1944, saw the greatest amphibious landing of troops and equipment ever in the history of warfare. The opening of the Western Front would reinforce the Eastern Front of the advancing Soviet army, and within a year end the war in Europe defeating Nazi Germany and destroying Adolf Hitler’s plan to dominate Europe from the British Isles to the Ural Mountains. Most adults are familiar with D-Day from the movies. “The Longest Day” in black and white and Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” burned the image of those landing craft on the Normandy beaches of Utah, Omaha, Sword and Gold into people’s brains with the horror and death coloring the sand and water red with the blood of thousands of American, British and Canadian soldiers as they stormed, crawled and washed up on the French shore. The surviving participants we have known never talked about it. I remembered taking a young friend to the “Saving Private Ryan” showing at the Milbridge Theater and there were a number of old “guys” in the audience. During those Normandy scenes, sobbing and crying could be heard in the dark. I explained to my young friend that those had to be WWII veterans reliving the horror of their memories shut away for all those years. Sometime later, I ran into Joe Cummings coming out of the bank and casually asked if he had seen the movie. I knew that he was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge in December ’44 but had no idea how or when he had landed in France. A look came over his face and he said: “Oh my God, you just don’t know, Peter!” As we stood on the sidewalk there in Cherryfield, his story came rushing out. He was a combat Ranger and had gone ashore on Omaha Beach in the dark prior to the actual invasion with his Ranger team to clear avenues of approach up the beach through barb wire entanglements. The defending Germans on the cliffs above did not fire on them, waiting for the main invasion force so that their defensing firing would be as deadly as possible. Joe’s Ranger group made it to the base of the cliffs and waited for the assault. As dawn broke, they sat there, relatively safe against the cliff and watched the slaughter on the beach as thousands of their fellow American soldiers died in front of their unbelieving eyes. Tears rolled down Joe’s face and he shook as the pain welled up out of him. I was so shaken by this event as I had no idea and it caught me by such surprise – we hugged impulsively, each needing the support to stay on our feet. I got Joe into his truck so he could sit down as I excused myself to get home and sit myself. The next time I saw Joe, we never mentioned that event and it never came up again in the few years left before his death. Yes! An eyewitness to D-Day that made it so real for me all these years later, it still shakes me today and made more poignant by that lonely cross in a shady corner of the Normandy Cemetery.

1LT Peter Duston, USA (ret.)
Army bugler
Narraguagus Post 8 Adjutant
Cherryfield, Maine

PS: I returned to Normandy for Memorial Day and then two weeks later for the D-Day commemoration. I was prepared to provide a live bugler but the Army Band was there with a beautiful live taps. My uniform got us into the VIP areas and close up. I met WWII D-Day veterans, probably for the last time. I sounded taps with just me and the troops buried there. They will understand.

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