By Capt. William Wurzel (TRADOC)June 21, 2018
FORT BENNING, Ga. (June 21, 2018) -- In this guest commentary, Capt. William Wurzel, a platoon tactical trainer with the 4th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Rogers at Fort Benning, Georgia, gives his thoughts on the immediacy and intimacy of D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied military stormed Normandy at the onset of liberating Western Europe during World War II, even 74 years after the day.
Wurzel attended the 74th anniversary commemoration ceremony at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, France, June 6, 2018.
Every year toward the end of May, hundreds of U.S. service members, veterans, civilians and tourists converge on the rural Cotentin Peninsula, otherwise known as Normandy, France. The stories and experiences are legendary in the Army, and many view the possibility of going akin to winning the lottery. Only units who participated in the original Operation Overlord return, and only so many Soldiers from each unit. The desire to go varies from the historical aspect, diplomatic mission, foreign travel, or the opportunity to be part of something good, healing, and righteous, something a part of the world stage. Despite the commemorations having occurred for decades, similar events every year are seen in new light with alternate perspectives and continue to reach new generations. I was fortunate enough to participate in the 74th annual D-Day Commemoration, and these are the stories, thoughts, and memories of those I accompanied.
At the behest of the French government, American service members from the Army, Navy and Air Force are invited to participate in the local ceremonies and memorials to the events of D-Day. This annual presence helps to keep alive the memories of what transpired 74 years ago. It is not the people of Normandy idolizing America as much as it is a celebration of a combined effort to defeat an ultimate evil. The people of Normandy are enthusiastic about sharing their stories with a new generation of service members who still represent the ethos and character of those that came to their aid.
To exemplify this point, there is a small village in Normandy called Graignes. During Operation Overlord paratroopers of 3rd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, and a misdropped member of the 101st Airborne Division liberated the town after 4 years and 11 days of occupation. They retook the town with the help of the local townspeople, despite the great threat to the townspeople's safety for helping Americans. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen retook the town over two days of intense combat. The Americans had to pull back, but left their wounded in the town church with their unit medics and the battalion surgeon. When the SS came upon the church, they marched the wounded, medics and the surgeon into a nearby field and executed them. The SS then executed the two priests, any civilians they could find, and burned the village, including the church. The remains of that church still stand today as a memorial. Every year the town holds a ceremony in the church to remember what happened so many decades ago. At this year's ceremony we were privileged enough to meet Martha. Martha was 14 when she escaped with the 3-507th, who pulled back from Graignes. She remembers navigating mine fields and making it safely to her home on the outskirts of town. At the reception after this year's ceremony, Martha drank champagne and danced to the sounds of the Air Force Band. She was excited to share her story and glad we still come back every year to learn and remember.
As with any historical understanding, the closer you get to personal experiences, the better you grasp what cannot be conveyed by third parties. Learning about the events of D-Day from those who lived it -- or knew those who had -- imparts a stronger connection to the lives memorialized. When Jack Hamlin talks about what it was like in the Coast Guard, attempting to save Soldiers from drowning off of Omaha Beach, it changes you. When veterans of the beaches or paratroopers thank you with tears in their eyes for serving, it is staggering to consider they think our fight is harder. Retired Col. Nightingale interviewed many veterans of D-Day, including iconic leaders involved on the beaches, the jump, and the ground gained inch by inch to achieve success for the Allies. He can tell you exactly what Lt. Dick Winters was thinking when he first approached the artillery at Bretcourt Manor. He knows the personal thoughts and reactions of the leaders on the ground at La Fiere Bridge, Lt. Turner B. Turnbull at Neuville-au-Plain, or the last moments of Tech. Sgt. Robert Niland, one of the four brothers on which the movie Saving Private Ryan is based.
It is odd visiting both the American Normandy Cemetery and the German Normandy Cemetery. They carry two very different messages. One is of heroism, selflessness and altruism while the other stands as a solemn reminder that families on either side of a conflict suffer immense loss, grief and anguish. The German military sends many to be present at the D-Day ceremonies. It is a powerful reminder that we have healed, moved on and now count the Germans as friends and allies. This is hard to understand without seeing it firsthand, in conjunction with the stories of those who survived the war. It lends a spectrum to the chronology that is difficult to convey in words. The juxtaposition is moving and uplifting.
Over the decades these stories have reached thousands of service members who keep them alive. It was these personal experiences that were so humbling that exemplified the commemoration. Looking forward to the 75th anniversary next year, I hope that this is perpetuated on a grander scale. The more who can draw lessons from Normandy, the better chance we have at preventing a similar war in the future.