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Opinion: Remembering the fallen heroes of Normandy's sacred bluffs

 Scott Simon's family at the Normandy cemetery.
Scott Simon
Scott Simon's family at the Normandy cemetery.

Rows of white crosses, and now and then a Star of David, roll over the green bluffs at the U.S. military cemetery in Normandy. Part of the power is their simplicity and sameness. The headstones of 9,388 Americans who lost their lives in the Allied invasion of Normandy, 80 years ago this week, are inscribed with name, rank, the division in which they served, and the date on which they gave their lives.

No hometowns, ages, or jobs; no details of how they died. It is not because those things are insignificant, but because every person buried there fell in a common, crucial cause: the battle to free Europe and defeat Nazism. Their families chose for them to stay there, above the beaches in Normandy, where they fought, and now rest together.

Nearby cemeteries hold the bodies of thousands more British, Canadian, and Commonwealth country soldiers who also died in Normandy that summer.

I feel a personal debt to those soldiers, sailors, and fliers. As a child, my late mother-in-law, Marie-Amelie Richard, and her family spent four years living in the cellar of their Normandy farmhouse. German staff officers had taken over their home. Many of the young men buried in the bluffs of those cemeteries a few miles away were only a few years older than my mother-in-law and her teenage brothers and sisters. Those soldiers gave their lives for strangers in another country, far from home.

“(T)he American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong,” wrote the historian Stephen Ambrose, “and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we, all of us, living and yet to be born, must be profoundly grateful.”

Our family spends a few weeks in Normandy every summer. We’ll be there in a few days. At night, we walk that beach where there was such blood, fire, fear, courage, and death 80 years ago. It’s empty and majestic now. Our dog romps along the sand and plays with the waves. Our daughters run barefoot and pick up seashells.  

I feel that I owe my own family to those soldiers who fell there, and are buried just a few miles away. In a way, maybe we all do.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.