The night before D-Day operations, June 6, 1944, American paratroopers landed in and around the little town of Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, France near Utah Beach. The town square is marked by an ancient French church. Near the church is a rare obelisk marking the ancient Roman road that passed through the area. A pitched battle took place in and around the town square. One soldier's parachute got hung up on the church steeple as the battle raged below. It is here that the first American flag was raised at 4:30 a.m. before our troops hit the shores at Omaha and Utah beaches.
The Mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église proudly retells the story of how his town was the first to be liberated by the Americans. This past week marked the 75th anniversary of the great battle. On the hallowed beaches of this French coastal province, I joined thousands of fellow citizens, veterans, elected officials, and grateful French gathered to pause, reflect, and remember those who gave their all in defense of the values we hold dear.
Our cemetery at Omaha Beach is a peaceful, beautiful, and noble place where 9,388 war dead lie. To walk among the quiet rows of crosses and Stars of David is to move from the fascinating history of the battle into the poignant reality. Each marker represents a story. A sacrifice. A mission. Sons. Fathers. Brothers. Sometimes the story stops, and the marble reads:
Here Rests in Honored Glory
A Comrade in Arms
Known But To God.
I sought out the gravesites of two Creston, Nebraska brothers, Julius and Ludwig Pieper. Both served aboard the Landing Ship Tank (LST) 523 Stardust, which joined 7000 vessels amassing for D-Day's Operation Overlord. As D-Day began and in the days that followed, Stardust journeyed back and forth across the English Channel dropping off supplies, munitions, and Allied soldiers, and returning with casualties. On June 18, 1944, Stardust hit an underwater mine as it approached Utah Beach, killing the Pieper brothers. Ludwig was recovered and buried. Julius was lost; his name inscribed on the cemetery’s Wall of the Missing. Two days before the brothers’ death, their parents received a letter from their twin sons. It read: “Do not worry about us, we are together.”
Thanks to the diligence of Vanessa Taylor, a high school student from Ainsworth, Nebraska, and her teacher Nichole Flynn, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified Julius’ remains in 2017. Julius and Ludwig are together again.
I had the opportunity to greet several of the dwindling cohort of D-Day veterans who returned to the foreign battlefields where they first set foot over seven decades ago. These elderly men around 95-years-old were all of good cheer. Irving Locker of New Jersey fought from Utah Beach all the way through the Bulge. Slight in stature, Irving told me that his Commander said: "Irving, stand up!" He said back: "I am standing!" Bob Noody of the 101st Airborne parachuted into Saint-Mere-Eglise, "right behind the Mayor's house," and when I asked Dan McBride of Ohio where he landed, he said with a wry smile: "on the ground." It took Dan four hours to find anyone, and when he finally linked up with an American unit, he asked the Commander, "Where are we?" The Commander replied: "I think we are in Europe."
At the cemetery’s ceremony, President Trump shared these sentiments: “To the men who sit behind me, and to the boys who rest in the field before me, your example will never, ever grow old. Your legend will never tire. Your spirit—brave, unyielding, and true—will never die.” In a powerful moment of poignant humility, French President Emmanuel Macron turned to the veterans and said: "I bow before you… France has not forgotten. We owe more than medals and words. What we owe you is to show ourselves worthy of the heritage of peace that you left."
As he was recognized by President Trump, President Macron gently helped 94-year-old American private, Russell Pickett, to his feet. Pickett is the sole surviving member of Company A, 29th Division, 116th Regiment, which, as made famous by the opening scene of the film Saving Private Ryan, suffered a 96% casualty rate within a half hour of battle on Omaha Beach. Pickett was injured on D-Day before returning to France only six days later. During the battle to liberate the town of Saint-Lô, he sustained further injuries after being hit by grenade shrapnel. Recovering once more in England, this brave, indomitable American hero returned to battle a third time as the Allies fought for the French town of Brest. In a later interview, he said, “I would do it again–– I thought my country was worth it then and I still do.”
That flag planted above the town hall at Saint-Mere-Eglise is still there, inside and framed, cared for and nurtured with pride by the people of this small French town who know what America did, and what America means. As Antoine, a 20-year-old Frenchman, told me, we have a “duty of memory.”
I invite you to view a video slideshow of my visit.