Editorial: Cherish the stories of D-Day veterans

Posted6/6/2014 5:01 AM
  • In this June 6, 1944, photo, some of the first troops to hit the Normandy, France, beachhead take cover behind enemy obstacles to fire on German forces as others follow the first tanks plunging through the water.

    In this June 6, 1944, photo, some of the first troops to hit the Normandy, France, beachhead take cover behind enemy obstacles to fire on German forces as others follow the first tanks plunging through the water. Associated Press

A break in the weather was all they needed. Allied forces, emboldened by months of preparation, would soon blitz the shores of Normandy in a forceful campaign to reclaim France from German occupation. D-Day had arrived.

When the storm subsided early on June 6, 1944, what commenced was all the frenzied brutality that war combat delivers. Paratroopers dropped from planes for an assault behind enemy lines. Naval craft approached by the dozens, troops spilling out of them into the water and onto the shore where they would begin a literal run for their lives. Bullets rained down from the front and side, and mines in the sand posed a threat from beneath. The Germans had every advantage, but the Allies would prevail in this battle. The cost was great; more than 2,000 Americans did not live to see victory.

The next day, when the fighting had moved inland, famed World War II journalist Ernie Pyle visited the beach. "It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore," he wrote. "Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead."

Many did survive the carnage and returned home -- though with horrific scenes in their memories difficult to erase. There are reasons it took years, even decades, for those who were part of the D-Day invasion to begin to tell their stories. Perhaps the ugliness and terror of the combat was too traumatic for the mind to process.

As a nation we've learned to appreciate the veterans who have served us. We shake their hands, attend Memorial Day services, tend to their needs and send care packages to their buddies still in the field. The show of support hasn't always been the case. Soldiers of yesteryear didn't come home to public adoration and strangers telling them, "Thank you for your service." There were no yellow ribbons, no motorcycle parades.

And no psychologists were lined up to help them work through the distress and loss.

While the GI Bill gave WWII veterans access to college, housing and employment, little was said about the emotional effects. PTSD as a diagnosis wouldn't exist for 35 years.

Beyond the trauma, perhaps some chose not to share their experiences because of a sense of modesty, a desire to move on. "They just didn't want to talk about it because it seemed to trivialize, I believe, their memories of those who didn't make it back," Nick Mueller, president of The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, told The Associated Press.

But eventually many veterans did tell their stories, including some living in the suburbs.

Army Pfc. Frank Andrews, 94, of Des Plaines is a D-Day veteran who only last year received six medals, including a Purple Heart, that were long overdue. During the assault, a bomb exploded near him, seriously damaging his leg. Instead of removing himself for medical treatment, Andrews continued fighting.

The war stories of another D-Day participant, Libertyville's Don Carter, 89, largely went untold until 2005, when he visited the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., as a guest of then-Congressman Mark Kirk. He was brought to a small studio at the Library of Congress and asked to describe his experiences on camera. "That was my first genuine exposure," he told the Daily Herald. "We got a lecture: World War II guys have to quit sitting in the corner mute. You have to tell your story."

Of 16 million Americans who served in the war, only 1.7 million remain. In the next 10 years that number will diminish significantly, making the stories already told like rare jewels. They must be preserved, appreciated. They are not tales to celebrate, for there is no glory in war. They are messages about valor, survival, the drive to right wrongs.

The D-Day invasion gave the Allies the strength and confidence they needed to defeat Nazi tyranny. The spirit of that day -- courage in the face of overwhelming odds -- lives because of the stories we hear. To those veterans still with us 70 years later, and to the families of those who have passed on, we thank you for your service and sacrifice.

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