On the cusp of the 50th anniversary of D-day, President Clinton remembered America’s war dead Monday as “the backbone that secured our nation’s liberty” as thousands gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to pay homage to the fallen.
Addressing a Memorial Day throng of veterans, families and friends, Clinton said “it was the independence and the can-do confidence of the sons and daughters of American and the other democracies that won the day” on June 6, 1944, when Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of northern France and laid the foundation for Hitler’s defeat.
The President leaves Wednesday for an eight-day trip to Italy, France and Britain, his first visit to those countries since taking office. A highlight will be ceremonies to commemorate D-day’s golden anniversary.
More than 10,000 Allied soldiers were slain or wounded in the Normandy landing, which Clinton said started a battle that “was not just between two armies. It was as clearly as any conflict in all of human history a battle between two ways of life.”
Clinton said he mourned the suicide earlier this month of Lewis Puller Jr., a disabled Vietnam War veteran who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book after returning from the conflict. Puller was the son of the most decorated Marine in history.
“This morning when I got up I thought of Lew Puller and the countless other heroes he has joined and the terrible sacrifices men and women have been willing to make for this great land,” Clinton said.
He laid a red, white and blue-flowered wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at the cemetery earlier in the day. The President also hosted a White House breakfast for veterans, telling them the nation must be vigilant in fighting to uphold its freedoms.
“We owe our liberty and prosperity to the strength and valor of those who fought” in World War II, he told the veterans. “But we also inherit the responsibility of defending that gift.”
Clinton’s Arlington Cemetery speech was greeted with warm applause from the 4,000 people packed into an open-air amphitheater.
He ignored a lone heckler, who shouted “Go back to Oxford, you traitor, draft-dodger.” Clinton’s avoidance of the military draft while in college in the late 1960s brought harsh criticism from veterans during his 1992 presidential campaign, and last Memorial Day--his first as commander in chief--he met with heckling and a cool reception when he spoke at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The President tried to comfort families of Vietnam soldiers still missing in action by underscoring “our solemn obligation to find answers for those whose loved ones served but were never accounted for.”
He urged parents to teach their children about World War II, offering as an example the story of a Missouri elementary school librarian who brings D-day veterans and other war survivors to speak to students every year.
“To honor, we must remember,” he said. “Today, somewhere in America, a curious child rummaging through an attic will stumble upon his grandfather’s insignia patches, a pocket guide to France, a metal ‘cricket,’ a black-and-white photo of a smiling young man in uniform. But learning about those times and those deeds must be more than accidental.”
Soldiers signaled with metal “crickets” to locate each other in the dark.
Veterans of wars from World War I to the Persian Gulf War knelt or laid flowers among the rows of white headstones that blanket the gentle green slopes of the cemetery. Soldiers from a nearby Army base planted small American flags in the soil in front of each of the 250,000 graves last week.
Among those attending the ceremony was Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was injured in combat in World War II. Afterward he signed autographs with his wife, Elizabeth, explaining that “I come out here every time I get a chance when I’m not home.”
“It’s a very important day for all the reasons everyone already knows, but it’s also a time to think about what a great country we live in,” he said. “We think about those who lost their lives and those who were wounded, but I think the sacrifice was worth it.”
* SOUTHLAND OBSERVANCES: The Southland observed the holiday with symbols of sacrifice and heroism. B1