By Chris Stigall
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Year after year we get so caught up in the American news cycle when discussing our military. Cable news pundits and politicians barking at one another about troop morale, supporting our military, or what a strong military is or should be. It’s uninspiring, to put it mildly. Many just don’t “get it.”
American might, the can-do spirit of wining at all costs, and the awe-inspiring gratitude you want to know and feel and sense about our military and our nation can be found in parts of rural Europe in early June. That’s when you “get it.”
You can find it in the small town of Benouville, France – home to Pegasus Bridge. This little town and this little bridge in the Normandy area of France was the opening scene of the most remarkable military comeback the world has ever known.
Every June 5th and 6th, this village and area residents come out to celebrate the single hour it took Allied forces’ gliders to drop paratroopers in and seize control of this key bridge. The dark of night, total surprise, with known but unseen danger all around – the people of Benouville understand what that was – and don’t forget.
At the foot of the bridge, a small house that now serves as a café’, beer garden, mini-museum, and souvenir shop. The woman that owns this house now sits in the kitchen – away from the crowds who flock to see her. She was 5 years old when paratroopers knocked on their door and told her family they no longer lived under German control.
When yours is the first liberated house in France, you get it. Even 71 years later.
Not far away, the people of Sainte Mere Eglise get it, too. This is a village made famous by the classic World War II film “The Longest Day,” and the ill-fated parachute landing of Private John Steele.
As his brothers from the air were landing amidst the chaos of German gunfire, Private Steele’s chute was caught on the town’s church steeple. There, he would hang for two hours watching the fight from his unintended perch. He would eventually be taken hostage by the Germans, but released not long after Americans re-took the village.
Today, one of the best parties in France can be found on the square of Sainte Mere Eglise the week of June 6th. A replica of Private Steele in full uniform, connected to a parachute, draped on the church steeple hangs year round.
United States military men and women like those of the 173rd Airborne stationed in Germany and those of the 82nd Airborne out of Fort Bragg, N.C. are invited to simulate the jump that started it all, winning their country back. Singing, dancing, beer gardens, monuments, parades, and American flags abound.
They get it.
Then, there are the beaches of Normandy and the towns near each.
Gold Beach is not just one of the sites of a heroic Allied invasion, but also home to a museum remembering what followed there in the days and weeks after D-Day. It is something we should all spend more time re-learning.
Do yourself a favor and read about “Mulberry Harbor,” and if you don’t come away in awe of that impromptu, massive engineering marvel that literally meant winning or losing the war in the opening weeks – well, check your pulse.
Stand on one of the widest beaches on Earth, Omaha beach. Wide open and at least three football fields from tide to the seawall and you understand why thousands of our men served as nothing but target practice for Germans from the cliffs above. Only sheer numbers, will, and steely resolve made them victorious.
But not before thousands of their brothers’ blood turned the seawater red all around them.
“Bloody Omaha” and the cliff above are the home of the Normandy American Cemetery where 9,387 gleaming white headstones, mostly Latin Crosses, are perfectly lined on beautifully manicured green lawns. 1,557 more names are still listed “M.I.A.”
If you’re lucky, you’ll shake the hand of one of the “greatest generation” who just happens to be paying his respects to his fallen comrades. It may even be the first time he came back to this place since he was a teenager storming one of those beaches. Then you’re sure to get it.
You’ll get it when you stand on the 100-foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. Look straight down to the sea crashing below, as you stand amidst huge, concrete German bunkers dotting the bomb-cratered cliff.
Consider the 229 Rangers who scaled those cliffs in just 30-45 minutes, then marched to seize territory from the Germans. Only half of them survived before help arrived two days later.
To the East, the city of Reims where Eisenhower’s Supreme Command set up headquarters and eventually secured surrender from the Nazis. The school where that happened is now a museum and kept just as it was in 1945. The city of Reims knows what that means.
In Luxembourg, the second of four American World War II cemeteries in Europe can be found. As beautiful and solemn as its Normandy affiliate, it is the final resting place of General George Patton and over 5,000 fallen heroes.
This part of the world reveres Patton and the United States military just as their French neighbors. In the little town of Ettlebreck, Luxembourg stands a replica statue of the general just as you’ll find at West Point. In a neighboring town called Diekirch, perhaps one of the largest collections of American World War II artifacts, weapons, vehicles, uniforms, etc. you’ll find anywhere.
It’s imperative to them to preserve the memory of what happened to their towns before the Allies saved them. They get it.
Finally, there’s Bastogne, Belgium. Ground zero in another stunning episode of American military grit called the “Battle of the Bulge.” The brutal, weeks long winter battle of 1944 was an unlikely success story against the Germans just as D-Day was earlier that spring.
There’s a permanent, beautifully restored American tank in their town square. Just outside Bastogne in the middle of nowhere, a World War II monument so grand it really belongs in Washington, D.C. Look it up if you’re not aware. It’s truly stunning.
In Bastogne, they get it, too.
From the beaches of Normandy, France to the woods of Bastogne, Belgium – these towns, villages, and cities remember. You see it in the American flags hanging off barns, and homes, and businesses.
Most impressively, in all of these communities, hundreds of European men and women dress in authentic United States military uniforms. They drive into their towns in authentically restored United States military vehicles playing 1940s American music. They put on shows and displays in their communities as if they were the actual Americans who liberated an earlier generation of their countrymen.
It’s a European love and celebration of the United States and her military that rivals most communities’ ceremonies in the United States, it could be argued.
If you’re ever fortunate enough to make this trip to see these things, a pride and awe will wash over you that is both breathtaking and often tear jerking.
You’ll get it. I know I do now. And I’ll never forget it.