Memorial Day: A day to take time to say “Thank you!”

by Ned Levi on May 27, 2013

Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Washington Square, Philadelphia, PA, photo courtesy of NSL Photography

The 2013 Memorial Day holiday ends today. By the time you’ve finished reading my column this morning, I will have returned from my annual Memorial Day visit to Washington Square, one of William Penn’s original five squares in the United States’ first capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I stood in silence, with many others, counting my blessings.

I stood at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, and its eternal flame perpetually illuminating the tomb, guarded by a bronze statue of America’s first president, George Washington. The inscription on the wall behind Washington’s statue reads,

“Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”

At some point during the holiday I hope you will have taken time to somehow say “Thank you,” to the countless men and women who have brought, and continue to bring, our country to the light of freedom, and keep us safe.

Washington Square, originally a potter’s field for burying the poor and indigent, is the final resting place for as many as 5,000 unknown Revolutionary War soldiers.

John Adams, shortly after walking through the Square in April, 1777, wrote to his wife Abigail, in part,

I have spent an hour this morning in the Congregation of the dead. I took a walk into the “Potter’s Field,” a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital, and I never in my whole life was affected with so much melancholy. The graves of the soldiers, who have been buried, in this ground, from the hospital and bettering-house, during the course of last summer, fall and winter, dead of the small pox and camp diseases, are enough to make the heart of stone to melt away!

As a traveler, I have been privileged to visit many battlefields, at home and abroad, on which our service men and women gave their lives for our freedom, from the blue-green waters of Pearl Harbor, to the shores and fields of Normandy, France. I’ve visited battlefields of the US Revolution where we defeated a British despot, and of the US Civil War where we fought, too often, brother against brother. I’ve traveled to the fields and seas of Europe and the Pacific, where so many of our men and women died to set the world free from tyrants and oppressors.

You can’t help but feel the pain and misery and courage of those who fought there.

In my travels, the two most moving experiences I’ve had were at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. For many travelers, the first sight of these two locations can be difficult.

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, HawaiiAt the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, seeing the oil slick atop the sunk USS Arizona, I could only shake my head in silence. At the Omaha Beach cemetery, seeing row after row of stark white markers, far too numerous to count, I could literally hear the account of the terrible hours my wife’s uncle, who survived the Omaha Beach landing, endured on that narrow stretch of sand which is so beautiful and peaceful today.

Especially if you’re a student of history, and we all should be, if you have a chance to visit these battlefields, don’t miss the opportunity. If you can afford to travel there, to me, both locations are a must. While there are many other wonderful sights nearby, don’t miss these two.

Upon your arrival at the Pearl Harbor visitor center you’ll notice an almost party atmosphere. Hundreds of people are taking in the exhibits and purchasing souvenirs at the gift shop.

Once you’re on the launch to take you to the Arizona Memorial, the mood quickly changes, and once you take your first step on to the Arizona Memorial itself, sitting atop the battleship, you will only hear the sounds of quiet, hushed voices, even from children. Looking down on the oil slick below, made by the fuel oil still seeping out of the Arizona’s tanks, you’re struck by the realization that the ship remains the final resting place for much of its crew.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, Normandy FranceWhen parking at Omaha Beach, you see nothing of the beach, the memorial, or the cemetery, but once you enter the memorial grounds, walking toward the water, you’ll finally see Omaha Beach itself. Looking out across the English Channel, you’ll stand in the footsteps of the German army, high above the beach. You’ll immediately understand how difficult it was for the American soldiers to break through the German position. You’ll understand how Omaha’s terrain made the beach the killing field it became.

Turning left, you’ll see it: row after row of white markers; crosses, Stars of David and others. The markers seem to go all the way to the horizon. There are 9,387 American soldiers buried there. Visitors who have seen countless images of the cemetery markers, when finally standing on the actual bluff above the beach, seeing the grave markers with their own eyes, are jolted. All conversation stops. Some bring flowers, some photos, and some, a small stone to lay on a marker.

Everywhere, at both memorials, there is the sound of silence.

(All photos courtesy of NSL Photography.)

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