Sixty-three years ago, the vanguard from the free world landed on these beaches – forces from the United States, England, Canada, Australia, France, and other nations. They had a singular purpose: to destroy the entrenched forces of oppression – what Churchill called “the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny” – so that this nation, this continent, and this world could one day know the tidings of peace.
Presidents and statesmen have paid homage here. Yet, no matter how moving the words, how powerful the speaker, all were humbled to stand in front of those men who sacrificed on these shores their safety, their innocence, and often their lives.
On June 5th, 1944, a mass of men and ships the likes of which the world had never seen set sail from across the Channel. An intelligence officer later described the awesome sight. “The vast machinery of invasion had started to move, inevitably and relentlessly. It was exhilarating, glorious, and heartbreaking.”
For those who were here, the next day, June 6th, unfolded as if it were a lifetime. Men who had only recently felt the warmth of their families now felt the frigid waters of the English Channel and the lonely sands of a war-torn, windswept beachhead. Men who had just a few months earlier been boys in the midst of adolescence suddenly found themselves traversing a warren of lethal obstacles on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword.
Here, at what came to be known as “Bloody Omaha,” the allied offensive faltered and almost failed. Bad intelligence, bad weather, bad luck – they all conspired against the landing forces.
In its horror, the scene was breathtaking. One GI said that the first men on the beach tumbled “just like corncobs off of a conveyor belt.” Another described Omaha as nothing more than “the dead and dying and the people coming in to replace them.” That day, the blood of the dead and the dying turned the seas red.
Even so, stories of valor were countless. As gunfire rained down, men stopped to pull comrades from the water. Alone or outnumbered, they charged heavily fortified positions.
We heard this morning from Medal of Honor winner Walter Ehlers, who after suffering wounds himself, would carry one of his riflemen to safety, refused medical evacuation, and returned to lead his squad as the spearhead of the attack.
Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder – one of my predecessors as president of Texas A&M University – was struck twice while leading his Rangers up and over the cliffs of Point du Hoc. Others wounded continued to fight on as they took their very last breath.
No amount of firepower could overwhelm their instincts, their bravery, their compassion, and their humor. Captain Frank Corder of Texas stepped onto the beach, and, as bullets and bombs whizzed by, said, “This is no place for Mrs. Corder’s little boy Frank.”
Ahead of Mrs. Corder’s little boy and all the troops pushing inland still lay hundreds of thousands of determined enemies ready to fight in the hedgerows and apple orchards of Normandy, in the forests of the Ardennes, and finally in the narrow streets of German villages.
But on these beaches the tide finally turned – though at a great and sorrowful cost. This cemetery is the final resting place for 9,387 Americans and a memorial to 1,557 who went missing during the Normandy campaign. All are remembered and honored here. All gave the last full measure of devotion.
We mourn every man who fell, even as we quietly give thanks for their sacrifice. We are grateful that those who survived these beaches and subsequent battles one day laid down the weapons of war and pursued the dreams of peace. And we are grateful that out of the rubble of war free nations conceived of and built a better future.
Today we mark another chapter at this hallowed place with the opening of a new visitor center.
We build memorials like this to remind us of the past. So that successive generations will know the enormous cost of freedom. So that our children and grandchildren will never forget the stories of those who fought here. So that the passage of time and the thinning of their ranks will never dim the glory of their deeds.
Minister Morin, events like this also remind us of all we have endured together – remind us of our long history in times of war, and in times of peace – remind us of the shared values that transcend whatever differences we may have had in the past, or may have in the present.
Sixty-three years ago, we fought together in the belief that the blood of free men could wash away the stain of tyranny. Some thought that we were perhaps overly ambitious – and indeed we were immediately challenged by another soul-crushing tyranny that built new walls of oppression and covered much of this continent in a new darkness. But again, the free nations of the world came together to defend their civilization and their hard-earned freedom. Throughout the many years of that long, twilight struggle, our partnership had its share of divisions and discord. But even when we disagreed on tactics, we remained unified in purpose. And today, finally, the dream of a Europe whole and free is a reality.
It is another challenging period for the nations of the free world. We once again face enemies seeking to destroy our way of life, and we are once again engaged in an ideological struggle that may not find resolution for many years or even decades.
At the same time, many people believe that the foundations of the alliance forged in places like this have collapsed or outlived their usefulness.
Let the people of our nations never forget that we are bound by history and values just as we are bound by blood. The blood of Americans. The blood of Frenchmen. The blood of Britons. The blood of other allies. The blood of everyone who has ever perished in defense of the lofty ideals that gave rise to and still underpin our great alliance. Those ideals were given birth on this continent, and given their renewal on battlefields like this one.
Today we are reminded of the frailty of human life and the terrible cost of war. But we are also reminded of the spirit of friendship and the strength of unity that has sustained the hope of both our nations, and all the nations of the free world, during many dark days.
I leave the last words of this ceremony to a man who fought on these shores – Captain Joseph Dawson, one of the first officers to make it beyond the bluffs of Omaha beach. In a letter to his family shortly after D-Day, he wrote:
“[H]ere amid the apple trees of this bit of France, with the symphony of war encompassing me, I have found peace of heart and soul never before attained in all my life, for here I am with the bravest, finest, grandest bunch of men that God ever breathed life into. Before it’s all over, you will know that this is true and that this company is my life.”
May God never let us forget what happened here. And may God grant peace of heart and soul to everyone who fought on these shores. Thank you.