Gates, Military Members Reflect on 63rd Anniversary of D-Day
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
COLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France, June 6, 2007 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was among hundreds of people who walked today above the windswept cliffs and paused among fog-shrouded headstones here to honor those who died during the D-Day invasion.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tours Point-du-Hoc on the 63rd Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, June 6, 2007. During World War II, rangers assaulted the beaches at Point-du-Hoc and scaled the 100-meter-high cliffs to defeat the enemy for the cause of freedom. Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby, Department of Defense
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The secretary took a private moment in the American Cemetery, reflecting on row after row of crosses and Stars of David that serve as the final resting place for 9,387 of those killed on D-Day and in the bloody days that followed.
He traveled several miles down the road to Point du Hoc to look out over Utah and Omaha beaches and hear the story of the 2nd Ranger Battalion that scaled a 100-foot cliff to face off against German bunkers and gun turrets.
Earlier in the morning during his address at the D-Day commemoration, Gates praised the heroism and sacrifice demonstrated here. “Stories of valor were countless,” he told the audience. “As gunfire rained down, men stopped to pull comrades from the water. Alone or outnumbered, they charged heavily fortified positions. … No amount of firepower could overwhelm their instincts, their bravery, their compassion and their humor.”
Among those heroes was Walter Ehlers, who returned here today to pay tribute to his brother, Roland, and other soldiers he served with who died on D-Day. Ehlers earned the Medal of Honor in the action here with the 1st Infantry Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment and said it’s a miracle that he, too, wasn’t among those killed.
“A lot of my friends are here,” said Ehlers, now 86. “They are all my brothers. It’s important that we give them as much honor as possible.” Most importantly, he said, “we need to make sure they didn’t die in vain.”
Ehlers said the cemetery and the new visitor’s center will ensure these soldiers aren’t forgotten in history. He called it “a very wonderful place to come and commemorate and remember the sacrifices made by these men.”
Harley Reynolds, who wore his old Army jacket with its staff sergeant stripes to today’s ceremony, said he takes special pride in the American Cemetery. Reynolds’ 1st Infantry Division unit was in the first D-Day wave, landing on Omaha Beach and seizing the land where the land above.
“This ground was taken by my company on the first day,” Reynolds said proudly. “We are a part of history.”
It’s a history retired Army Gen. Frederick Franks Jr., chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, said continues to inspire troops serving today.
Franks praised those who served and were buried here as they “carried the hopes and care of the free world on their young shoulders.” These troops fought for freedom through “duty and service to something larger than themselves” and set the example for those who followed in their footsteps.
Franks said a new generation of men and women in uniform draws inspiration from them.
Among them is Cpl. Justin Clark, who is assigned to Marine Corps Embassy Security Command at the U.S. Embassy in Paris but came to today’s ceremony today to provide support. “It’s an honor” to be able to recognize the D-Day heroes, he said.
Clark said he’s proud to be part of what’s been called “the next great generation,” another generation of U.S. troops fighting for their country as their World War II contemporaries did.
“We follow their example,” he said. “They laid it down. We just carry it on.”
Army Pfc. Christian Lozano was among about 60 1st Armored Division soldiers, many slated to return to Iraq this fall, who took a 10-hour bus ride from Baumholder, Germany, to serve as color guards and escorts and for the ceremony. “These guys are hard-core,” he said of the D-Day veterans. “They showed us what it’s all about.”
Army Spc. John Jennings, also with the “Old Ironsides” division, said that despite differences between World War II and Iraq and the way the wars are being fought, striking similarities remain. “The big picture is the same,” he said. “We are fighting for our freedom. We are fighting for our future.”
Army Brig. Gen. Yves Fontaine, logistics officer for U.S. Army Europe, called today’s ceremony a moving tribute to the men who died here, as well as to World War II veterans who survived. They showed the price of freedom and the qualities it takes to preserve it, he said.
“The previous generation opened the way for us,” he said. “And this new generation is doing the same thing today.”