Carnett: Stop and remember our fallen troops

I've had the good fortune to visit many of America's most cherished memorial parks.

I've been several times to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. I've visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, and Gettysburg National Cemetery on the hallowed Civil War battlefield.

As we approach Memorial Day 2013, one park I'll always cherish is one I visited 10 summers ago in France — the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer.

The 172-acre cemetery sits atop the scarred chalk cliffs that rise 100 feet above the sacred sands of Normandy's Omaha Beach. Spread below is the landing beach and the English Channel, which stretches over the horizon to the southern coast of England.

The breathtaking acreage is now officially American soil, ceded to this country by France in 1956. Nearly 9,400 U.S. servicemen and women are buried there.

The cemetery overlooks a sector of beach where U.S. soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division landed June 6, 1944. The 69th anniversary of those D-Day landings will be celebrated in two weeks.

During our visit, my wife, Hedy, and I stopped first at the visitor's center to sign the visitor's book and secure a map.

We then walked to the cemetery's main memorial, which features a 22-foot bronze statue, aptly titled "The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves." That title describes what Germans, Italians, English and French probably felt from 1942 to 1945 as they witnessed the flower of American youth cross the Atlantic in enormous numbers and land on the shores of North Africa and Europe.

Hedy and I went to the cemetery's Garden of the Missing, which recognizes the 1,500 American soldiers, sailors and airmen who fell at Normandy but have no known gravesites.

From there we visited the main body of the cemetery, stopping at the limestone chapel. Its inscription reads, "I Give Unto Them Eternal Life and They Shall Never Perish."

I spent more than an hour walking the cemetery, and stopped before many of the crosses that mark the graves. The soldiers were so young! Many were born the same year as my father, 1922 — and died in 1944.

Then came the highlight of my visit.

I walked the path that descends the chalk cliff to the sands of Omaha Beach. The people I encountered along that trail, and on the beach below, were almost exclusively Americans. Not a European among them. Perhaps that's to be expected so long after the war.

At the base of the cliff, I experienced a moment that I hadn't anticipated. It took my breath away.

Along the base of the cliff are smooth stones that have been amassed in piles by the ocean's tides. The rocks come in various colors, including a rust hue, a deep blue or black, and a chalky white.

Someone –- perhaps that very hour –- had arranged the colored stones in the shape of an American flag on the sand, about 3 feet by 5 feet. That likeness generated within me an incomparable welling of patriotism. I fought back tears.

Americans were clustered about the rock flag, taking photos.

I walked the sands of Omaha Beach about 100 yards to where the small waves of the English Channel were gently greeting the shore. I continued perhaps 30 feet into the water, then turned and looked back at the beach and the towering cliffs.

That's what the boys of 1944 saw.

I stood in awe of their terrible sacrifice. For me it was a sacred moment, amplified by the keening of gulls and the muted sounds of the rhythmic lapping of the waves.

Later, as I somberly ascended the path along the cliff to the cemetery — a path that probably didn't exist in 1944 — I thought about the American GIs under mortar and machine gun fire on that beach.

Their achievement, to me at that moment, couldn't have been more profound. I felt deep gratitude.

I invite you to take a moment this Memorial Day to remember Americans who've fallen in defense of our liberty.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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