They used to be the men who worked the machines, ran the shops, managed the businesses, taught the classes. You would pass them on Elm Street, buy groceries from them, see them on winter days shoveling their driveways to get to work on time. They carried their honor in secret, seldom talking about it. If asked, well, it was just what they had to do, what anybody would have done.
The answers almost always ended with the same self-deprecation: the real heroes were the ones who never came back.
We rarely run across their names anymore, except in the obituaries, where the heroism they denied is finally recounted. In February, there was Edward P. Wielgos of Manchester. He joined the Army at 17 and was assigned to the 115th Infantry Regiment. He earned a Purple Heart on Omaha Beach, went to UNH on the G.I. Bill, and worked for the Army in Japan. He raised a family in Manchester with the help of his wife of 50 years, Hiromi.
In December there was Arthur Bryer of Antrim. He stormed the beaches at Normandy, and two years later got married in England. He drove a truck and raised a family in Antrim, with his wife, Christina. In May of last year there was Francis A. Levasseur of Salem, a weaver who became a machine gunner, landed at Normandy and was captured a month and a half later. He survived 10 months in a German POW camp, came home, settled down, and had five grandchildren.
They are the old men who appear from time to time at church or the Memorial Day parade, looking for familiar faces. They salute the flag every time it passes, remembering dear friends lost a lifetime ago.
Seventy years before, they were nameless, faceless figures moving across a sandy beach, just targets for machine gunners and artillerymen on the cliffs above — 160,000 targets, 9,000 of them hit.
Before they left, Gen. Eisenhower told them: “The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.” On their backs they carried with them the fate of a continent. They should be remembered forever.
Theirs was the largest amphibious invasion force in the history of the planet, carried over the English Channel by the largest armada ever assembled. Its task, as President Roosevelt put it, was nothing less than to “preserve... our civilization.” Yet only 40 percent of Americans know that today is the anniversary of D-Day, according to the latest study of historical memory by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. We are already forgetting.
Western civilization was saved by shopkeepers, truck drivers and clerks. Seventy years ago, 160,000 of them knowingly ran into the blazing guns of a war machine that had conquered all of Europe. They and their comrades defeated it. For us.
Let us never forget them. Never.