Jewish World Review May 31, 2004 / 11 Sivan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Unheroic heroes | Some years you have to stop and think what Memorial Day is about. Not this year. On this Memorial Day, we needn't search our memory or thumb through the history books to call up names and faces. They're right there in the morning paper. Every day. War is back.

You don't have to be heroic to be a hero. You just have to be in the right place at the right time, or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time.

Let us now praise not famous men, but those who never sought fame, even if one day fame would find them.

Asked to recall his time in World War II, a common soldier named Robert Kotlowitz didn't write about the clash of arms but the calm sway of the seas as his troopship made the long, long trip over the ocean. In only a few pages, he sketched a whole boys' camp of familiar figures, from the scrounger to the card player, none of them heroic, all of them just waiting. It sounded idyllic. "Caged as we were on our ship," he remembered, "it still represented a kind of freedom to most of us. I was willing to sail to the end of the world in order to hold on to that serenity."

Only in the last paragraph of his memoir does the writer think to mention what became of his outfit after it landed: "In the weeks that followed, the Third Army front remained relatively quiet while supplies as well as manpower were replenished. During this time, the Yankee Division launched its first assault against the Germans, northeast of the city of Nancy. In this engagement, which lasted 12 hours, all but three men in the third platoon, Company C, 104th regiment, were lost."

In his book on D-Day, Stephen E. Ambrose entitles his chapter on the 116th Regiment at Omaha Beach "Visitors to Hell."

That is an understatement.

No vision of Hell could compete with the welcome the Germans had had four years to prepare for the American invaders.

And yet the Americans came on. Unstoppable. Even though every plan for the assault went awry:

The B-17s dropped their bombs too far inland to have any effect on the beach or the cliffs above it.

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Only a limited number of poorly trained Polish and Russian conscripts were supposed to be manning the defenses. Instead, three times as many seasoned German troops were waiting. The naval bombardment fell short, killing swarms of fish but no Germans.

From deep in their cliffside bunkers the defenders waited until the landing craft were in range, then fired with precision. The landing craft that weren't hit were swept off course. Those troops that did make it to the beach had no command structure left. They were trapped in a vast, burning, bloody junkyard of useless equipment.

To quote one report: "By 0640 only one officer from A Company was alive, Lt. E. Ray Nance, and he had been hit in the heel and belly. Every sergeant was either dead or wounded. On one boat, when the ramp went down, every man in the thirty-six man assault team was killed before any of them could get out."

And yet, and yet, they kept coming. They would not be turned back.

Ten years later, a visiting veteran would look up at the steep cliffs in wonderment and quietly ask, "How the Hell did we do that?"

G-d knows.

"Now that it is over," Ernie Pyle would write at the end of one day's battle, "it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all."

That miracle had a name: infantry.

Knots of men with no grand plan but their own wits and leadership did what had to be done in chaotic circumstances, going by feel and instinct and desperation. They just kept coming on, those common, ordinary men who were anything but common and ordinary. Unheroic heroes.

They're still coming on today.

You who read these lines in peace, and we who write them in safety behind capacious desks in clean, well-lighted offices, can do so only because, in a thousand places at a thousand times, grimy, terrified, unsure young solders and sailors in the fullness of life were willing to give theirs. If asked what Memorial Day is about, I'd say that's what it's about.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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