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In Honor of Those Who Fought and Fell So That We Might Stand – Independence Day

July 05, 2002

I see them every time a distant battle is commemorated. I hear them interviewed every July 4th and on Memorial Day. Many now walk with unsure steps, often aided by canes, or they sit in wheelchairs, eyes squinting in the sun. They wear jackets inscribed with the names of their units, and military ribbons and medals attest to places they survived or where they fought with valor. What do they remember? What fallen comrades do they recall? What glory of youth ripped away in fragments do they still mourn?

“Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall see ripe age and who shall not? Who shall perish by fire and who by water?”

They flooded across the Great Plains and through the metropolis on foot and on buses to answer the call to serve, those callow youth whose moment of cherished valor was a stolen kiss. They hugged Mom and Dad goodbye to face the future that grimly awaited them.

Tow-headed boys with Midwestern accents and Southern drawls; the sounds of Brooklyn and the Bronx bumping up against Texas slang; jive and con, bigots and bullies; wide-eyed innocents and kids who walked with a James Dean swagger; those who were scared stiff and those who said, “Bring it on”; letters home telling ‘Sis’ not to worry and little brother to behave. The sorting-out process began and soon boys who loved peace became men who waged war.

They were crammed into ships’ holds and transports’ bellies. They made their way to Europe and the Orient to land in places with strange names. They cut through jungles that they never knew existed. They were pinned down, captured, tortured and killed. They assaulted pillboxes and trenches, swarming across fields, fighting for each precious yard of blood-soaked turf. They came from the skies and the seas, parachutes billowing and feet churning. Their guns jammed, and foxholes became graves dug by mortars. Sometimes the enemy was better than they thought, or more vicious than they had heard. Rumors became facts, became fiction, became stories told over beers, and a bottle of champagne was saved for the last man standing.

They left behind families and promises. They left behind hopes and dreams. They left behind innocence and they flew out to battle fatigue. They matched wits and weapons with tyrants. They fought in the name of freedom and they fought to protect the men next to them. The miles and years rolled bye: seasons changed and leaves were cancelled. Jeeps and tanks poured off assembly lines. In mill towns and on farms, in cities and along river banks, this country forged ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Rosie the Riveter.’ Ration stamps became common currency in a nation whose sons and daughters served on distant shores, and as we sent our youth ‘over there,’ refugees clamored to come over here. America became hope and haven, battle cry and bastion.

They came home in body bags and they arrived in ticker-tape parades. They came home with one arm or leg. They covered themselves in glory and most of them didn’t want to talk about it. They claimed that the real heroes were the ones they left behind. The survivors came home to the G.I. Bill and most of them felt that the nation owed them nothing. “Duty,” they called it. They have been called “The greatest generation” though it is not a title they claim for themselves. They found jobs and started families, and they spoke more about their future than about their past.

We pause to remember those who answered the call to serve in skirmishes that were intended to prevent wars, and in wars that were supposed to be the last great battles. So great was the reliance of the free world on the United Sates to stem the tide of evil that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, envisioning the possibility of France falling, wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 15th, 1940: “As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and the force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astounding swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear.” {John Lukas, Five Days In London Yale University Press 1999, p. 72-72}. That onerous weight was eventually removed, but not before Europe was bathed in blood. Americans shed their share to end the reign of darkness.

On June 6th, 1964, twenty years after D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces, was interviewed on Omaha Beach by Walter Cronkite. Looking out at the Channel, Eisenhower said, “It is almost unreal to look at [this beach] today and remember what it was like, but it’s a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own, but to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world. I think it’s just overwhelming to think of the lives that were given for that principle…they did it so that the world could be free.” {Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day, June 1944 – The Climactic Battle of World War II Simon & Schuster 1994, p. 583}.

Thomas Paine said, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” That is what we remember at this time. We honor those who fought and fell so that we might stand.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin