What do these statements have to do with history? Aren’t they classic words of advice? Why would we ponder their meaning on this Fourth of July weekend, or any other day, for that matter?
Let’s begin with five significant days in the lives of all Americans. Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, D-Day, Father’s Day and Independence Day are celebrated annually within a two-month time frame. For each of us, there is a story surrounding the significance of who we are and how we must respect these days.
After the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War was fought to gain our freedom as a nation. The U.S. Constitution was ratified to formally create the United States of America. Subsequently, many challenges to our democracy have been answered with decisive leadership and human sacrifice in the name of freedom.
WORLD WAR II arguably is the most powerful defense of freedom in history. The evil and selfish attempt of one man was defeated by Allied forces that would not tolerate inhumane government being forced upon millions and millions of innocent victims – not only by military aggression but also by massive genocide.
June 6, 1944, was the boldest and bravest military invasion ever. Many of us are children or relatives of the men who landed on the beaches of Normandy, beginning with the first wave and lasting for days. It was the beginning of a calculated risk to end this horrible war and ultimately liberate the citizens of countries under siege.
My father, 1st Sgt. William G. Presnell, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus six, June 12. He died on March 7, 1969, when I was a sophomore in college and my sisters were still at home. Our mother was a guidance counselor at our high school.
None of us had a clue what Daddy really did in the war, beyond the fact he had earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and some other medals, which he kept in his Army trunk. For many reasons we never asked, and for many reasons he never offered details of his service.
Two years ago, we siblings began planning a trip to backtrack his steps based on his journal and military map. Thanks to my youngest sister’s research, we accomplished our objective in May. What we learned from several gracious hosts in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany far exceeded our expectations. The military history is well-documented, yet unless you are able to go where these soldiers fought for freedom on European soil, as we did before this trip, you can only imagine.
Highlights of our itinerary included: Omaha Beach; Utah Beach; Caen; Bayeux; St. Lo; Mortain (likely the victory confirming the Germans could not stop the momentum of the Allied forces), Brussels; Margraten; three American cemeteries (Normandy American National Cemetery; Netherlands American Cemetery; and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery); Fort Eben-Emael, crossing the Belgian border into the Netherlands; the Battle of the Bulge site, crossing the river border from Holland into Germany; Rolduc Abbey; Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (where Anne Frank and her sister died in March 1945); and ultimately standing precisely on the same soil Daddy stood with two Russian soldiers on the Elbe River on May 8, 1945, V-E Day. We concluded our visit in Berlin, 80 percent destroyed during the war but now thriving and tourist-friendly since the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In our trip, our hosts were people whose families were restored to freedom by our father’s unit, the 30th Infantry, known as “Old Hickory.” All of them strive to preserve the history of the 30th Infantry. Each had extensive research notes, and have personal museums of artifacts they have assembled honoring this history.
One of the most memorable sights we consistently saw traveling through the villages of France, Belgium and the Netherlands was the presence of the American flag on display wherever the home country’s flag was displayed. The gratitude for America’s commitment to their freedom was unwavering. Each of our hosts told us very emphatically “We love Americans. We are free because of your father’s Army.”
IT DEEPLY CONCERNS me that many of our own citizens care less about our country than those we liberated during World War II. It also disturbs me that while the countries we visited sing their national anthems without modification, our own national anthem is rarely performed correctly. Where has the respect for history and tradition gone? There was a resurgence of pride for a short time post-9/11, but it has slowly waned to complacency.
There are some coincidences in this story. Anne Frank was born June 12, 1929; my father landed on Omaha Beach on June 12, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot died in early March 1945; my father died in early March 1969. My father was born on a Dec. 30; my mother died on a Dec. 30; and my granddaughter was born on a Dec. 30. My mother’s birthday is Sept. 11. World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945; my sisters and I arrived in Paris last May 8 to begin our journey.
The 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner is this coming September. But July 4 will forever be Independence Day.
My father sent me a letter two days before he died expressing his hopes for my future. I now understand why he felt so qualified to write these words:
“When things get tough, just dig in deeper! Don’t be a quitter! Never give up!”
God bless America!
(The writer is the vice president of administrative services at SRP Federal Credit Union in North Augusta, S.C.)