66 years ago, they earned it

Sometimes when my brother and I talk about our late Uncle
Warren, we find ourselves joking about the way he seemed to get married and
divorced at least once a decade, or the way he hid name brand sodas from us
because he didn’t want to share them. But just when our derision is growing a
little raucous, he will pause and remind me, “Of course, he was also a war
hero. He was, I’m pretty sure, the only war hero we’ve ever had in our family.”

Indeed, it was sixty-six years ago today that he jumped from
a plane over Normandy as part of Operation Overlord, or what we refer to now
simply as D-Day. He was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne
Division who would jump again three and a half months later, this time over the
Netherlands in Operation Market Garden. And he would have fought in the Battle
of the Bulge that December, except for the tiny detail that he would be
machine-gunned in the legs while sitting in the back of a truck on the way into
Bastogne. He would walk with a slight limp for the rest of his life.

Warren was my mother’s older brother, the oldest of three
siblings, and the guy looked like a movie star: Tall, blond, and blue-eyed,
with a jaw so strong and square that it must have made New Hampshire’s Old Man
of the Mountain more than a little envious. Somewhere in a box in my attic I still
have his uniform dress jacket.

Among my greatest regrets is that he died before I ever
asked him for the details of what he saw and experienced sixty-six years ago
today. Actually, I wish I had asked him about all of 1944 and 1945. But I
didn’t. The years when he was most a part of my immediate family’s life were
the late 1960s and the 1970s, and perhaps because the country was so divided
over the Vietnam War, his experiences as a paratrooper were never discussed.

But it may also have been the natural reticence of the women
and men who have seen the worst that can happen in actual combat. A year ago in
this space I wrote about Middlebury’s Ron Hadley. Hadley skippered a 50-foot
long landing craft through the rough chop at Omaha Beach, but never talked about
it in the two decades that I knew him here in Lincoln. It was a friend of a
friend who mentioned to me Hadley’s valor on June 6, 1944. The reality is that
real heroes don’t talk much about what they did. As Hadley told me last year,
it was a long time before he felt capable of discussing what he had witnessed.
And so they go to work and raise their kids and, when it’s time, care for their
own ailing parents. They live lives pretty much like the rest of us who aren’t
war heroes.

Consequently, for much of my generation D-Day is gleaned
from such books as Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day” or such films as Stephen
Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” When we think of that movie, we tend to
think of the opening, with the remarkable recreation of the chaos and carnage
on Omaha Beach. Certainly, I do. But there is another section of the film that also
drives home the meaning of today for me. At the very end of the movie, as
Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying, he says to Private James Ryan (Matt
Damon), “James. Earn this. Earn it.” Fifty-four years later, Ryan will kneel
before Miller’s tombstone in Normandy and murmur, “I hope that at least in your
eyes I have earned what all of you have done for me.”

And so this morning I will say a small prayer of thanks for
those veterans – women and men like my uncle – whose stories I will never know
but whose sacrifices allow me to lead the life that I do. And, once again, I
will recommit in my mind to trying to earn that freedom.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 6, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “66 years ago, they earned it

  1. Chris Widlund says:

    Thank you so much for remembering and remarking on what those heroes may never talk about themselves. Pause is definitely worthwhile.

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