Memorial Day Speech – Ripon, Wisconsin – 2019
Thank you ——–, and good morning honored guests, fellow comrades, friends and neighbors.
We are here today, just as Americans have gathered on this very same day since shortly following the Civil War.
Our purpose here is to honor all the fallen citizen-soldiers who died in all the conflicts fought in America’s name – from Gettysburg to Fallujah.
We seek to honor the fallen by remembering them. And as the ranks of current veterans thin over time, the conflicts they served in become vague and distant.
I would like to offer a tribute to a day in a conflict three-quarters of a century ago, a day that changed the world.
Seventy-five years ago the world held its breath. It was the end of May, 1944. Everyone, on both sides of the Atlantic, knew something immensely important was about to happen, but no one knew exactly when it would occur or if it would succeed.
All of Europe, except for a small slice of southern Italy, lay under the boot heels of Nazi Germany. Hitler had used the four years since the fall of France to build what he called the impregnable Atlantic Wall, designed to throw back into the cold English Channel any foolhardy attempts by the Allied forces to breach it. But he too knew that somewhere along those hundreds of miles of cold and stormy beaches the attempt would be made.
And then, at 6:30 on the morning of June 6, German troops beheld a sight unique in the annals of history – an armada of over 4,000 ships appeared out of the fog, off the coast of Normandy and opened fire. Over 1,200 aircraft pummeled dug-in German defenses. Amid the incredible din, landing crafts plunged through the surf, disgorging man and equipment in unheard of numbers. Soldiers scrambled desperately ashore or sank beneath the weight of their gear.
On the eastern-most beaches our allies, the British, Canadians, and the Free French waded ashore, while on beaches code-named Utah and Omaha, young men, many still in their teens, having come from every walk of life and from every part of the United States, slogged ashore through withering gunfire directed from cement bunkers, long prepared for just such an invasion.
Were they afraid? According to observers and participants alike, they were terrified. Only in hindsight and history books was victory inevitable. At the time, even the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had his doubts. Had the invasion failed, this is the announcement he had prepared for the world.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
How different would our history be if he had been forced to read that on D-Day!
But those terrified boys and men fought their way off the beaches. Paratroopers secured vital road junctions behind German lines, and Army Rangers scaled the cliff of Pointe du hoc. And although, 24 hours later, only 90 of the original 250 men were still functioning, they succeeded in disabling the big guns raking the beaches, and in holding their ground until they were relieved.
Because of men such as them, instead of the former chilling message of failure, at the end of the longest day any soldier could imagine, Ike released the following simple statement:
“Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”
By the end of that first day, an incredible 156,000 men had surged ashore, becoming an unstoppable wave that would not cease flowing until the Nazi empire was pounded into rubble.
Last summer I had the honor and privilege of visiting Normandy and witnessing the beautiful tributes paid to the Allies. All is quiet there now. The beaches, shore, and cliffs still are littered with the debris of that struggle. It all touched me deeply. But what moved me the most was the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach, the final resting place for 10,000 Americans who never made it home to girlfriends, wives, or families, who never had the chance to fall in love, grow old, or bounce grandchildren on their knees.
And that is why we are here today – to pay our respects to those who valued loyalty, duty, respect, self-sacrifice and love above all else. Jesus said, “Greater love than this has no one, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Yes, these men knew what real love meant. They knew what honor, commitment, and integrity meant. They were men who understood that courage was not the result of a lack of fear, but came from overcoming fear’s paralyzing terror.
The numbers of those who fought in that distant conflict diminish daily. Here in Ripon, in our American Legion post, there are now only seven veterans of WWII. There are a few more scattered about in our community, a community that once boasted of hundreds. In a few years, they too shall pass into history as have the veterans of conflicts before them. Then we shall have only our memories of what they did. That will have to be enough! We are obligated to remember them.
In a few minutes we shall leave this park and make our way to the cemetery for a most solemn event. Whenever I walk through a cemetery and see a small flag before a grave, I stop and read the inscription, and I say a brief prayer thanking God that the veteran buried there once stepped forward, raised his right hand, and marched into his country’s service.
Finally, I would like to read part of a poem I saw on a small memorial on Omaha Beach. It was written shortly after the war by a Frenchman and signed simply ‘Jean.’ The poem is titled “REMEMBER OMAHA.”
They climbed aboard with anxious heart
The madly sea-tossed landing craft.
The sea-fog on that sad morn
All but shrouded the pale dawn.
As if heav’n itself dared not see
The hounds of hell that day set free.
They were no heroes
Though all were heroic
In that eventful day,
When mankind put all at stake.
It is an understatement to say
That our liberty was dearly bought
At the time of that first onslaught.
The foam was red.
All is now still, save for the breeze
That carries back across the seas
The souls of America’s sons,
Whilst the sun, now and then, warms
Those twenty-year-olds who sleep today
Facing the sea in Normandy.
In conclusion, I encourage each of you here today to find your own private way to meaningfully observe Memorial Day. Thank you for your attention. God bless you, and God bless America.
Karl Stewart 5/27/19 in Ripon, WI