Monday, May 29, 2023

Memorial Day: more than a long holiday weekend

Today is Memorial Day. For many, it's merely the end of a long holiday weekend. For others, it's a time of reflection and an opportunity to say thank you to the men and women who have fought to protect us.

Living in Philadelphia, America's birthplace, I am surrounded by history, landmarks, monuments, and many important places well described in our history books. While you're reading my column this morning, I'm likely returning home from Washington Square, one of William Penn’s original five squares, where I will have stood in a moment of silence with many others, recognizing the sacrifice made by so many unnamed and unsung heroes of America's past.

I will have have stood at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, and its eternal flame perpetually illuminating it, guarded by a bronze statue of America's first President, George Washington.

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, saying 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 photographer, 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. I've visited the blue-green waters of Pearl Harbor, and the shores and fields of Normandy. I’ve visited battlefields of the U.S. Revolution where we defeated a British despot, and of the U.S. Civil War where we fought, too often, brother against brother.

The pain and misery and courage of those who fought there remains palpable to this day.

In my sojourns, among the most moving experiences I’ve had, were my visits to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.

At the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, seeing the oil slick atop the USS Arizona, I shook my head in silence. At the Omaha Beach cemetery, staring at row after row of stark white markers, far too numerous to count, in my mind's eye, I heard my wife's uncle's account of the harrowing test of death and survival in the terrible hours after dawn on Omaha Beach, a mere sliver of sand, so beautiful and serene today.

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. Both locations should be on every American's bucket list.

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 taking you to the Arizona Memorial, the mood quickly changes. By the time each person takes their first step on to the Arizona Memorial, sitting atop the eponymous battleship, only hushed voices, even from children, break the silence. As you peer down to 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.

When you park at Omaha Beach, you can't see beach, the memorial, or the cemetery. Leaving the lot, you enter the memorial grounds and walk to the edge of a cliff. The English Channel, almost 100 miles wide at that point, stretches out before you, and below is the narrow slice of sand, which became known as Omaha Beach. Standing in the footsteps of the German army, high above the beach, you immediately understand how difficult it was for the American soldiers to break through the German position. You understand why the beach became a brutal killing field.

Then you walk to the left. Before you, lays row after row after row of white markers; Latin crosses and Stars of David. The rows of markers go all the way to the horizon. There are 9,387 American soldiers, men and women, buried there. Even those who have seen hundreds of images of the cemetery, are jolted when finally standing on the bluff above the beach with the unending rows of grave markers before them. As visitors first see the grave markers, all conversation stops. Slowly, those who have come to pay their respects, some bringing flowers or photos or a small stone to lay on a marker, walk among graves in silence, broken only by families speaking of longing and sacrifice.

I hope that at some time during the holiday you have taken time to say “Thank you,” and recognize the contributions of countless men and women who gave their lives for your safety and freedom.