Visit to American Cemetery in Normandy leaves former Lowcountry man in tears

info@islandpacket.comNovember 11, 2013 

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    Email David Lauderdale at dlauderdale@islandpacket.com.

Thanks to former Hilton Head Islander Bob Ryan of Spring Hill, Fla., for sharing a Veterans Day story.

Bob and Diane lived here from 1992 to 2001 and he was a graduate of Leadership Hilton Head in 1994.

"In 2006, we volunteered for an English immersion course in Spain and while in Europe took a side trip to Paris and Normandy," Bob writes. "The visit to the American cemetery at Omaha Beach was so moving that I wrote the attached letter to my children after returning home. Over the past few years the letter has become mildly viral. It has appeared in newspapers across the country on Memorial Day or Veterans Day and I have been asked to read it at various ceremonies on those days, both here in Florida and in New York.

"I am deeply moved by the outpouring of gratitude that I have received from many people and I am constantly asked for copies. Last Veterans Day, I read it to an assemblage of 700-plus people in our current community and afterward was approached by a 91-year-old veteran with tears in his eyes, asking for a copy. He told me that he was at Normandy on D-Day 1944 and intended to copy my letter and mail it to all of his living compatriots. It was the finest 'thank you' I ever received."

A GIFT FOR YOU FROM OUR JOURNEY

By Robert B. Ryan

Dear Linda, David, Daniel and Kelly,

Whenever we travel, I think of coming home with gifts ... just simple things as a remembrance.

Today I send each of you a very special gift from this journey. It cost me nothing but comes from a place where it cost Americans everything.

We drove all morning through driving rain and mistaken directions. We were lost at least three times and probably added one hour to a two-hour trip. We started in Monet country in France en route to Normandy and the scene of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Our specific quest was the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.

After many wrong turns, we finally arrived at our destination about noon on Monday, Oct. 9. We entered the parking lot under overcast skies and could easily see that the gray day and the season made us two of only 50 to 100 visitors.

Signs directed us toward the entrance. We entered the Omaha Beach cemetery and immediately saw a place of meticulous care and beauty. The grass was brilliant green even under the overcast. A Visitor Center was apparent but we turned and entered the path to the cemetery denoted with a simple sign that said "Silence and Respect."

We walked a short distance among beautiful trees with the only sound being birds chirping and wind in the trees.

And suddenly there it was. We both gasped with a sob in our throats. There before us in precise rows, diagonally, vertically and horizontally were the white limestone markers on the graves of 9,379 Americans who died here. It was one of the most seminal moments of our lives. The tears just came and came and came.

We walked slowly without any words. We went our own ways with our own thoughts. We saw graves of men from Nebraska, Maine, New Mexico and every state. Most bore crosses but a few Stars of David were evident. War does not differentiate. I came upon the grave of one of the three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients buried there -- Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Yes, it is the grave of the son of a president, the highest ranking officer to be decorated with the Medal of Honor in World War II.

After our individual strolls and our individual thoughts, we met at a stone depiction of the D-Day scene poised on the edge of the 300' cliffs that the Americans and British stormed. Nearby was a statue where sixth grade children from a school just across the English Channel had laid flowers that morning on a day trip.

We looked down the steeply inclined cliff and saw a paved path to the beach. Despite the difficulty of the return climb, we decided to go to the beach. I thought that our journey back to the top would be arduous but nothing compared to what our fellow Americans faced on D-Day.

We reached the beach with its copper-colored sand at high tide and could see remnants of 62 years ago still protruding from the sea. Stones tossed up by the surf lay at the line between sand and sea grass. I thought of young men who saw the same thing in their last moments on earth. And once more we cried.

We looked west toward the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and east to Juno, Sword and Gold beaches. We both bent to pick up stones and just then at 1 p.m., the carillon tower high above us in the cemetery began to peel with "It's A Grand Old Flag." We could only stop and cry once more.

The climb back to the top was very difficult but we never ceased to remember how awful it must have been for those fine young men who did it so long ago.

And so I come to the conclusion of my recollections of Omaha Beach and send you this very special memento. Enclosed is your gift -- a stone from Omaha Beach. Please keep it forever. It embodies sacrifice, courage, honor, and bravery. We are all free Americans because men like the fallen heroes at Omaha Beach paved the path to victory.

It was one of the most moving days of my life. God bless America.

All my love,

Dad

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