San Diego’s Greatest Generation in Normandy for 70th anniversary of D-Day

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Washington, DC, June 20, 2014 | comments

On June 6, I had the honor of attending the 70th anniversary of the D-day invasion in France. What a humbling experience it was to be there.  Countless graves marked the landscape where over 155,000 Allied soldiers fought and more than 6,000 died at the site of one of the most significant military operations in modern history.

In commemorating this longest day of war on June 6, 1944, we observed a day full of gratitude to those who sacrificed and those who bear witness that day, to say “thank you.”

As part of our bipartisan official congressional delegation, it meant so much to me to represent San Diego as we paid tribute.  I was also there as the daughter of a World War II veteran.

Looking back, it is incredible--incredible that an operation as vast and as complex as the Allied invasion of Normandy could ever succeed.

Operation Overlord, as it was named, was the largest seaborne invasion in history with 155,000 troops, 5,000 vessels, and 30,000 vehicles crossing the English Channel in rough seas to hit the beaches of Normandy just after dawn.  The five beaches where the Allies landed were code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

In retrospect, the invasion has come to be seen as a marvel of planning, coordination, engineering feats, a healthy dose of courage and a commitment to stopping the spread of tyranny.  

Our troops faced setbacks at every turn. Yet against all odds, our brave young men persevered.  It is absolutely impossible to fathom what they experienced on those beaches that day.

I asked one how he was able to survive that day.

He said, “I have no idea.”

At the start of the day on the 70th Anniversary, a memorial ceremony honoring American veterans was held at the Normandy American Cemetery (NAC) at Omaha Beach.  More than 93,000 American war dead from WW II are interred at NAC.

President Barack Obama and President François Hollande of France hosted the gathering of dignitaries from around the globe. Among them were more than 80 American WW II veterans, five being from our area who traveled more than five thousand miles back to the spot where they risked their lives.

Speaking with D-day veterans from San Diego like Jack Port, Joe Reilly, Victor Kramer, and James Federhart, I was reminded that they were just kids in 1944, many of them still teenagers. It has been said that they went to war as boys and came back heroes.

An international ceremony followed in the afternoon at Sword Beach with President Obama and Allied heads of state.  President Hollande in his remarks quoted President Eisenhower, who, as a four star general, commanded the invasion of Normandy: “Americans were not sure what they were fighting for in Europe, but in liberating the concentration camps they knew what they were fighting against.”

I wish I could have learned more from my dad about his experiences.  Captain George Alpert served as an Army medic throughout the war. In Europe, mostly in Italy, he saw a lot in that theater.  But like so many of his brothers in arms, he did not speak about the war, and it is not hard to imagine why.

Many of their comrades never made it home. Thousands of U.S. soldiers fought and died, so that the world might live in freedom and inherit peace. 

While the numbers of WW II veterans who return to Normandy on these anniversaries dwindle with each passing year, our gratitude and appreciation for what they did for us - for what they did for the world - will never diminish.

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