D-Day 2014

June 9, 2014

I advise you in advance that this sermon is a work in progress. Only yesterday did I realize I had to talk about what I am talking about, rather than what I thought I was talking about, and there wasn’t that much time. Yesterday, June 6, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when 160,000 Allied troops coming ashore from 1200 ships assaulted a 50 mile stretch of fortified French coastline to begin the liberation of France from the Germans and begin the end of WWII. There were commemorations here and throughout Europe and on the site. Even as the number of living D-Day veterans falls and the date recedes into the past, the event still stands, in the eyes of history and those who were there, as one of the most heroic and dramatic battles of the war. And the code names of the Normandy beach sectors that were attacked – Omaha Utah Juno Gold and Sword – remain etched in the annals of the 20th century. I doubt that there are many veterans of that battle sitting here today in this shul. But most of us know with great certainty what that battle looked like. That is because most of us have seen Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan;” so we have a “firsthand” view of what happened. Just as – when we think of the Exodus and the Crossing of the Red/Reed Sea we think of Cecile B DeMille and Charlton Heston – when we think of D-Day, it’s Tom Hanks making his way through a beach so clogged with the bodies of dead soldiers that some troops had to wait till the next day to go ashore. It was what one survivor called a “wax museum” – it was so covered with bodies. Let me remind you about the movie, because it matters to this sermon. “Saving Pvt. Ryan” was a 1998 American epic war film set during that invasion of Normandy. It is notable for its graphic and realistic portrayal of war, and for the intensity of its opening 27 minutes, which depict the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944. It is hard to ever forget those 27 minutes. They portray a brutal deathly struggle against German infantry, machine gun nests and artillery fire. 9000 Allied troops were killed or wounded. Army Ranger Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) survives the landing and leads a group of soldiers who penetrate the German defense. Meanwhile, in Washington DC at the US War Department, Gen. George Marshall is learning that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family were killed in action and that their mother is to receive all three telegrams in the same day. He learns that the fourth son, Pfc. James Francis Ryan, is a paratrooper, and is missing in action somewhere near Normandy. Marshall orders that Private Ryan be found and sent home immediately. Three days after D-Day, Capt Miller (Tom Hanks) receives orders to find Ryan and bring him back from the front. He assembles six men from his company and a cartographer and they move out. I will skip over the bulk of the movie, the struggle to find Private Ryan and what it cost in human lives. Finally they meet up with Pvt. Ryan. In the end, almost everyone but Ryan is killed in a courageous battle with the Germans. We will come back to the last two scenes. Yesterday the media was full of reports on the observance of the anniversary in France, and interviews with some survivors. Without all that, you would be hearing a different sermon today. The reports are worth reading, especially the Post front page story called “An Omaha Beach Memoir,” which talks about Leo Scheer, who at age 20, 70 years ago yesterday, was swimming for Omaha Beach, his burning landing craft dead in the water, with a pattern of machine gun bullets splashing towards him, a land mine on the beach a foot from where he was about to step, but whose worst moments were actually three weeks later when he was being sent back to England and out of danger. He was despondent. Why, he agonized, when 9000 soldiers were killed or wounded, had he come through without a scratch? We will come back to that too. Three things about D-Day stand out for me:

1.The bravery of the Allied soldiers. I always wonder how men today – myself included – would react to a war situation like the Normandy invasion. Would we be racing to shore despite the hail of bullets, or would we be cowering in the landing craft in a fetal position? I wonder, similarly, how we would have survived (or not) in the forests running from the Nazis, living in fear of instant death, subsisting on turnip roots or food stolen from somebody’s kitchen. Or what we would have done if we were the captain of the sinking South Korean ferry, who walked to safety while 300 of his passengers went to their deaths? Would we have been like him, or would we have been like the ferry crew member named Park Ji-Young, 22, who helped teenagers get life jackets and escape by urging them to jump into the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea where rescue boats were waiting. She stayed behind without a life jacket for herself despite the youngsters’ entreaties to jump with them. She was later found dead floating in the sea. Would we have been that crew member, or the captain, or would we have been the captain of the Italian cruise liner the Costa Concordia which sank two years back and who was one of the first off the ship? The truth is we do not know which we would have been, and we certainly do not know whether we could come close to matching the courage and determination of the Allied troops at Normandy. At the least, though, we have to admire what they did. It may not be an exaggeration to say that their courage saved the free world. They should have our admiration and respect and appreciation.

2. Not sure how to say this second thing about D Day that stands out for me. I am struck by the complicated reality that is the human spirit. Two examples: Remember Leo Scheer, featured in the Post cover story, last seen swimming for Omaha Beach, his burning landing craft dead in the water, with a pattern of machine gun bullets splashing towards him? Remember that he told the reporter that his worst moments were actually three weeks later when he was being sent back to England and out of danger? He was despondent. Why, he agonized, when 9000 soldiers were killed or wounded, had he come through without a scratch? On the day he learned he would be going out of the battle zone, he left his buddies and went alone to a secluded spot. He had been worried about his parents if he should be killed, but now he was anguished that he had lived. “I was down… depressed, sad, just totally screwed up,” he said. “You think you’re dead, or going to die. The enemy fire is coming at you. You could see it,” he said. “To my left, here comes a pattern. Splash, splash, splash. About every 6 or 8 inches, a machine gun bullet would hit, coming right at us.” The bullets came within a few feet of him – and stopped. “I’ve wondered all my life what made the gunner stop. It’s an emotional damned thing. Why did I survive? You think about all those dead kids… How did I get out of this myself, and not a scratch?”

Isn’t that striking? Feeling guilty for not being killed? I know that happens, but it still amazes me. That is one kind of human reaction that speaks to the human spirit. That portrayed at the point of finding Private Ryan in the movie is another. Ryan is told of his brothers’ deaths and that the soldiers facing him are on a mission to bring him home, and that two men have been lost in the quest to find him. He is distressed at the loss of his brothers, but does not feel it is fair to go home, to abandon his fellow soldiers. So he asks Capt. Miller to tell his mother that he intends to stay with the only brothers he has left. Isn’t that striking? The sense of brotherhood with men who are not your brothers, some special kind of human loyalty, despite the dangers, is on display all over this and many war stories.

Friends, we human beings are so complicated, what an amazing creation we are! Just try to appreciate the feelings seen here: guilt that one soldier didn’t himself die in the battle, for another loyalty to fellow soldiers trumping a chance to go home safe and instead putting himself in mortal danger. The human spirit is so complex and so amazing.

3. Third and final point, “the question” I call it. It is the question that surviving soldiers ask and that, to an extent, we all ask. Remember the final two scenes in Saving Private Ryan? In the first, Captain Miller’s small squad cannot extract itself from its rescue mission and instead has to fight a large and well equipped German unit. In the battle there are many German casualties, but three more of the Americans are killed and Miller is shot and mortally wounded. (Sorry to give that away, but I couldn’t do the sermon otherwise.) Pvt. Ryan is with Capt. Miller as he dies and says his last words, “James… earn this. Earn it.” Six men died to save him, and Capt. Miller challenges him to make their sacrifice worth making. “Earn it.”

And then the final scene. It takes place in the present day, the now elderly Ryan and his family are visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial – we saw footage from there yesterday. Ryan stands at Capt. Miller’s grave and asks his wife to confirm that he has led a good life, that he is a good man and thus worthy of the sacrifice of Miller and the others. Did he in fact “earn it?” His wife replies that he did. At this point Ryan stands at attention and delivers a military salute towards Miller’s grave. A scene to never forget. A scene that has D-Day as its origins.

In a way, friends, we are all Private Ryan. Maybe not saved from mortal danger by others who gave their lives to preserve ours, though through kidney and stem cell transplants we have had that kind of experience. It’s more about going through life wondering if we have earned what others have given us – our parents who gave us our very lives and food and shelter and sleepless nights when we are sick and a shoulder to cry on or a pat on the back to build on, OR our teachers who took the time to understand why we were struggling or encouraged us to pursue learning that changed our lives, OR our coaches or camp counselors or music and dance and art teachers who helped fully open the windows of our bodies and souls. Have we earned what they gave us? And have we ever given back in return, or have we paid it forward?

On this, the day after D-Day, let us pause to be thankful for those who risked or gave their lives for our freedom, to thank God who created us in the brave and complicated ways we are, and let us think of all those who gave us so much – not expecting we would earn what they gave us, but hoping. Here is a moment to dedicate to them all. Let us do that in silence, from the depths of our hearts. Amen.