Honoring the Great Crusade


Just before Theresa and Jo packed their bags and headed for the Heartland Conference, I hopped on a plane going the other way.

Although I’m appropriately awestruck by the careers of Napoleon and Wellington, we skipped the real Waterloo and headed instead for Normandy.

The seventieth anniversary of D-Day has long been billed as the last gathering of the liberators and they were certainly there in force. 

Some relied on walkers or were pushed in wheelchairs. Others took the controls of the planes they flew on D-Day, went underwater to see their old submarines and parachuted again into France. When his care home couldn’t arrange travel, Britain’s Bernard Jordan took matters into his own hands and left for Normandy, triggering a police search at home.

For the last handful of years, at least, most of us 20th-century types have been caught up in concern over the impending disappearance of WWII vets and the need to capture all their stories before they’re gone. 

We’ve watched them retire, slow down, decrease in number. A friend of mine routinely recites the rate at which American WWII vets are dying. Grim, I know.

In Normandy and in Belgium, I had the privilege of seeing hundreds of veterans and meeting several. 

They’re obviously not as young as they once were—not quite ready for the Olympics, my grandmother would say—but they were lively and busy and having a good time on their tour.

I listened to infantrymen talk with my cousin Franz about the Battle of the Bulge, hearing the stories of the liberators and the liberated. Franz, an avid history buff, grew up in Rocherath, Belgium, and went into the Ardennes as a child to unearth and play with relics from the battle.

The veterans, to a man, were humble and modest about their service and the role they played in liberating Europe. It was an honor to see them, to listen to their stories and to consider the debarquement through their perspective.