My father was with the first infantry division and landed on Omaha beach at Normandy the first day of the operation.
He told me stories about his military adventures, which took him through the streets of Cherbourg and Paris, through the Battle of St. Lo and ultimately to the Battle of the Bulge, where at the Sigfried Line he sustained massive shrapnel wounds in his hand. He spent two years in the hospital undergoing reconstructive surgery. He could never close his left hand and had a special grip built onto his golf clubs so he could swing them.
After the horror of the war, he returned to America, got married and raised a family. He lived to see the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and commented that it was his favorite film about D-Day. Yet even that film could never, in his estimation, capture the smell of battle.
This weekend America commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which by all accounts was the major action that broke the back of Germany and its allies. Six thousand allied soldiers died on the beaches of Normandy the first day.
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Many movies and books have been produced about the battle, telling stories of war strategy and of what soldiers encountered that day, June 6, 1944. I, myself, wonder more about the spiritual moments that came out of D-Day. The chaplains who administered last rites and counseled survivors give us another viewpoint on how the soldiers coped with the enormous stress they faced in combat.
It is fascinating to learn how chaplains participated in D-Day -- and through the rest of the war effort to defeat the Germans. The chaplains were a symbol of humanity. They were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, and no one checked to see a soldier's dog tags to determine whether that person deserved a few minutes of comfort and hope. Chaplains had an ecumenical mission to provide spiritual care to everyone regardless of their religion or lack of thereof. In fact, former World War II chaplain Rabbi Morris Kertzer wrote, "The Chaplains Corps' greatest achievement, I believe, was in making the soldier believe that the Army did care about him as an individual. We were a symbol to him, a guarantee that the Army, recognizing its fallibility in dealing with large masses of men, was sufficiently concerned for his welfare to set aside 7,000 troubleshooters in the Chaplains Corps to short-circuit red tape, to right wrongs, to deal with injustices. We talked and talked with G.I. Joe. We made him laugh when his heart was heavy. We passed his bed of pain with pleasantry. We gave him a sense of his own importance. Together, with the medical corps, we were the soul of the army."
Chaplain John Burkhalter, who landed on Omaha Beach, wrote a letter to his wife about his experience. It was later published in the Miami Herald on Aug. 6, 1944. He wrote: "When my part of the division landed, there were impressions made on my mind that will never leave it. Just before landing we could see heavy artillery shells bursting all up and down the beach at the water's edge under well directed fire. As I stood in line waiting to get off the LCI to a smaller craft to go into shore, I was looking toward land and saw a large shell fall right on a landing craft full of men. I had been praying quite a bit through the night as we approached the French coast but now I began praying more earnestly than ever. Danger was everywhere; death was not far off. I knew that God alone is the maker and preserver of life, who loves to hear and answer prayer. We finally landed and our assault craft was miraculously spared, for we landed with no shells hitting our boat."
Many of those chaplains in World War II returned to usher in a new kind of ecumenicism in American religious life. Some went back to their congregations, and others pursued academic and organizational positions. They saw that Nazi weaponry did not discriminate against Jews versus Christians. Shrapnel does not differentiate between Protestants or Catholics.
These chaplains helped lead the way into the Civil Rights movement and Vatican Two. These chaplains were part of a new era of America understanding its diversity -- and of acceptance of diverse religious groups.
D-Day contains so many stories of heroic action. Some might say that in the midst of such carnage and suffering God was not present. Others say that in the foxholes of combat there are no atheists. But on that day on Omaha Beach or Utah Beach or any of the other beaches where Allied forces landed, troops moved forward through the hedgerows and climbed those ominous cliffs knowing retreat was not an option. It was death or victory. No doubt the accompanying chaplains taught the soldiers that God was there every minute during the war and to keep faith.
There are so many stories of spiritual comfort and compassion that may not ever make it in a book, but will be remembered by the Divine Presence. I am proud of my father's participation on those shores and still wonder in amazement how he survived it all. Let this anniversary remind America what it stood for and how so many thousands laid down their lives in the prime of their youth. Seventy years later, their sacrifices have not been forgotten. We remembered and honored their memory as we do all who serve to defend this great nation.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.