As the Fourth of July approaches, my world view is forever changed.
Recently my husband and I returned from a trip across Europe, tracing the steps of American, English, French and Canadian troops that made up the Allied Forces in World War II.
We walked the Omaha and Utah beaches of Normandy where tens of thousands of soldiers died in the early battles to liberate Europeans from the clutches of the Nazi regime. We visited the fields near Sword and Juno beaches where British paratroopers landed their silent gliders in the dark morning hours to secure key bridges for Allied troops.
We walked the cobblestone streets of Bastogne and learned about farmers and shopkeepers who joined the great resistance, exhibiting heroic efforts to aid the Allied forces on to victory. We hiked through the same forest, past foxholes and trenches, where American soldiers dug in to fight for freedom in the bitterness of the long and cold Winter of 1944, repelling the German Army in its last counter offense at the Battle of the Bulge.
We visited the hallowed grounds of several American cemeteries in the villages of France, in Bastogne, and in Luxembourg where General Patton is buried. There, an inscription by Dwight D. Eisenhower reads, “All who shall live hereafter in freedom will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and with the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally.”
I stood there at the steps of this monument for a long while. Stretched before me in every direction were thousands of pristine white crosses, each one representing the precious life of an American soldier. Row after row, the somber markers hewed from Italian marble bear the name, rank, home state and date of death of each soldier.
These young men left the safety of their home and security of their family to fight for freedom on the other side of the world. They understood and accepted their rendezvous with destiny.
Our final stops were in Germany. We visited several historical places related to the horrific reign of Hitler’s Third Reich. We toured the Dachau Concentration Camp where thousands of Jews were either starved to death or killed. I was not prepared for the horrors: gas chambers, human ovens and rooms where tortuous medical experiments were performed on prisoners. At the end of the war, when U.S. soldiers liberated those who managed to stay alive at Dachau, one soldier described the scene this way: “We saw thousands of dead bodies standing up.” He had witnessed innocent victims clinging to life who appeared in their most skeletal form.
We toured the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg where Nazi leaders had to answer for their crimes before an International Tribunal. US Supreme Court Justice Robert A. Jackson served as a lead prosecutor. His opening statements in the Nuremberg Trials included this statement: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
In our public schools, are we teaching these important lessons of history to the next generation of Americans? Will this generation and the ones that follow acknowledge the ultimate sacrifices made by those 416,800 American soldiers who lost their lives in World War II to secure peace and liberty for those oppressed by Hitler? Will we stop paying our debt of gratitude because we refuse grateful remembrance of their sacrifice? Let’s hope not.
Liz Pike is a retired Washington State Representative who served three terms, from 2012 to 2018. Today she operates Shangri-La Farm, a small-scale organic farm in Fern Prairie outside of Camas with her husband Neil and also teaches oil painting classes. She can be reached at (360) 281-8720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.