June 4, 2013
When you write, and share stories for a passion, and a living, a day like today here in Normandy, is one you dream of. But that dream-like day, comes with an emotional price, no matter if you're an observer, or the writer.
What we witnessed inside the hallowed grounds of the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, will stay in my memory banks forever.
The story we will share next week of this visit today, will mark the first, and likely last time for most, if not all of the N. Texas D Day veterans, to visit this masterpiece of remembrance to our D Day vets.
On this day, our 8 N Texas D Day vets raised the American flag at the cemetery, in total silence and salute, at 9:15am. There was no one else there, only them.
They were also given the honor to lay a wreath, saluting those thousands of lives lost, so many of them their friends. I walked with most of our men through the perfectly manicured grounds. The perfectly placed rows of white stone crosses, bear names, ranks, and hometowns of those buried beneath. Every cross, perfectly placed. This sacred ground is the final home to 9,387 men who fought valiantly in the invasion of France, 69 years ago, and the vets we are with, watched some of them die.
Some wanted to find the crosses bearing the names of the men they knew. Others, simply took in the enormity of the endless rows of white crosses, against the backdrop of the deep green grass. It is one thing to see this beautiful place in pictures and video. But in person, it can take your breath away. It can make your heart ache for the mothers and fathers who never got to see their sons come home.
Some chose to speak, others, simply couldn't. Every man had his own unique reaction. There was pride. Sadness. Grief. Some asked why they were spared, and not others, including former Army Sgt. Major Richard Blatnik, a member of the Army's 1st Division, known as the "Big Red One". He spoke of the willingness to go back, and trade places with the young men he commanded. Those young men who died next to him. Blatnik talked in riveting detail, about the sounds of machine gun fire whizzing by his head. The deafening blast of mortar fire landing right next to him. The smoke that filled the sky, taking away the horizon. The slog of pushing through sand, and 10 foot high piles of rock, that sank like quicksand when you walked on it with an 80 pound pack.
But the most moving moment of the day, came when that same Mr. Blatnik, at 93 years of age, wanted to go onto Omaha beach, and not just in the sand. He wanted to walk the quarter to half mile, to Fox Red One. The zone on Omaha where he and his men landed 69 years ago. As we moved slowly through the sand, with his walker with wheels, Blatnik struggled with his steps, but demanded to press on. Army man to the end. He got his wish. There we stood, in the same sand that he dodged German gunfire on in 1944. Looking straight up into the high ground, and a valley, that would be their strategic target. And then, Blatnik dropped to the sand. With tears in his eyes, he praised the Lord for sparing his life, and prayed even harder that his comrades would be taken care of. He blessed the sand under his hands and knees. The last time Mr. Blatnik was here, the people up the hill from this beach, the soldiers of Hitler's Nazi war machine, were doing everything in their power to kill him. Today, 69 years later, everyone who lives up that hill, and through the rolling hills of the French countryside and across this nation, praise him.
Our story on the cemetery, and Mr. Blatnik will air next week, during our five nights of coverage of our "Return to D Day". CBS 11 News at ten.
The Daughters of World War II, treated 8 North Texas D Day veterans to this once in a lifetime trip. The Dallas-based non-profit organization operates solely from donations. If you'd like to donate, click here to visit their website.
(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. )
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