The 2010 Memorial Day holiday ends today. By the time you’ve read today’s column I will probably have returned from a walk to Washington Square, one of William Penn’s original five squares in the United States’ first capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
On the west side of the square you will find the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, and its eternal flame, guarded by a bronze statue of George Washington. The inscription on the wall behind the statue reads, “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”
At some point during the holiday I hope you will have taken the time to somehow say “thank you,” to the countless men and women who have brought our country to the light of freedom.
Washington Square, originally a potter’s field for burying the poor and indigent, became the resting place for as many as 5,000 unknown Revolutionary War soldiers.
John Adams, shortly after walking through the Square in April, 1777, wrote to his wife Abigail, in part,
I have spent an hour this morning in the Congregation of the dead. I took a walk into the “Potter’s Field,” a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital, and I never in my whole life was affected with so much melancholy. The graves of the soldiers, who have been buried, in this ground, from the hospital and bettering-house, during the course of last summer, fall and winter, dead of the small pox and camp diseases, are enough to make the heart of stone to melt away!
As a traveler, I have been privileged to visit far flung battlefields, both at home and abroad, on which our service men and women gave their lives for our freedom, from the blue-green waters of Pearl Harbor, to the shoreline and fields of Normandy, France. I’ve visited battlefields of the US Revolution where we defeated a British despot, and of the US Civil War where we fought against each other. I’ve traveled from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown to Savannah, and from Gettysburg to Antietam to Five Forks.
You can’t help but feel the pain, and misery, and the courage of those who fought there.
In my travels, two of the most moving experiences I’ve had were at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. For many travelers, the first sight of these two locations upon arrival can be difficult. Seeing the oil slick atop the USS Arizona, I could only shake my head. Seeing the rows of markers at Omaha Beach I could only remember the words of my wife’s uncle who survived the Omaha Beach landing.
If you have a chance to visit these battlefields, don’t miss the opportunity, especially if you’re a student of history. If you can afford to travel there, to me, both locations are a must. There are many other wonderful sights nearby, but don’t miss these two.
When you arrive at the Pearl Harbor visitor center it’s almost a party atmosphere. There are hundreds of people taking in the exhibits there, and purchasing souvenirs at the gift shop. When I was there, a book signing was going on, with a large line of those who bought the WWII Naval History Book waiting for the author to sign their copy.
But then, once you’re on the launch, taking you to the Arizona Memorial, you can see the mood change. Once at the Arizona Memorial, which sits atop the battleship itself you can only hear hushed voices, even from children. Looking down on the oil slick below, made by the fuel oil still seeping out of the Arizona’s tanks, you’re hit by the realization the ship is the final resting place for much of the Arizona’s crew.
When you arrive at the Omaha Beach parking lot, you can’t see anything of the beach, the memorial, or the cemetery. Walking toward the water you finally see Omaha Beach itself. When you see it, you’re high above the beach, where the German position was located. It’s easy to understand how difficult it was for the American soldiers to break through the German position there. The terrain made it a monumental task. The discussion among visitors looking out on to the beautiful English Channel is one of amazement.
Then turning left, you see it, row after row of white markers; crosses, Stars of David and others. The markers seem to go all the way to the horizon. There are 9,387 American soldiers buried there. When most people see the grave markers for the first time, even though they’ve probably seen countless photos of them, they’re jolted, and all conversation stops. Some bring flowers, some photos, and some, a small stone to lay on the marker.
Everywhere, at both memorials, there is the sound of silence.
(All photos courtesy of NSL Photography.)