As children, my cousin and I spent our allowances on military surplus gear and our summer days playing Army. From a hillside south of Shannon, we set up ambushes in the jungles of Guadalcanal and stormed the beaches of Normandy. We plundered Campbell’s soup from the pantry, peeled away the labels, re-dubbed the cans “C-rations,” stuffed them into our canvas backpacks and clanked around the pasture in search of the enemy.
We built small fires and swatted mosquitoes, wore gear that was too heavy and didn’t fit and, in general, tried to picture ourselves among the 12 million Americans who were in uniform near the close of World War II.
We did this under the gaze of men who’d done it when it wasn’t a game. War had cut short their youth. They didn’t lose their lives, but they came back without their illusions. Alternately bemused and concerned, they oversaw our battles without ever really speaking of their own. In retrospect I’ve often hoped our games didn’t bring up painful memories they’d thought permanently put away, but I’ll never know. They suffered their nightmares in private.
For many years I carried a P-38 can opener on my key ring in memory of those days, but I don’t anymore. Its blade made a quick reach for the keys painful and, besides, some memories don’t require a souvenir.
Memorial Day, now just two weeks past, remembers all those who died while serving, and Veterans Day honors all who’ve served, but the sixth of June stands out to me more every year, maybe because it’s the tangible anniversary of an event that was real. Memorial Day holds its place on the calendar by fiat. The date remembered by Veterans’ Day, November 11, 1918, was a key waypoint in the ending of the first World War, though negotiations and other formalities continued for another six months, but June 6, 1944, was a day whose sacrifices and actions changed the course of mankind.
It seems insulting to try to describe what happened in eloquent terms. It is enough to know what they did, and to remember that individuals did it, to know that boys who’d previously never been more than a few miles from home went around the world to do it, and that many didn’t come back.
Riding across Grenada Lake in a flat-bottomed fishing boat, looking over the square bow, I’m reminded of the Robert Capa photo taken inside a Higgins boat that had just unloaded on the coast of France, the craft’s open maw framing 20 or so GIs wading ashore that day, fighting toward the breastworks of Fortress Europe. It’s something we should hope the world never forgets. Some memories shouldn’t require a souvenir.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.