By Alan Burke
---- — President Barack Obama spoke at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy yesterday, declaring that this country’s commitment to liberty, equality and freedom “is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.”
As he spoke, D-Day veteran and Essex resident Morley Piper sat right behind him, one of roughly 200 veterans on the stage, including a handful from his 29th Infantry Division.
“It was an extraordinary day,” Piper said. He shook hands with the president three times. Obama asked where he was from and joked with another veteran about getting up a basketball game.
As a member of the 115th regiment, Piper had landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, exactly 70 years before. He stormed onto a shore already clogged with dead and wounded.
Piper returned to the beach yesterday morning. It wasn’t the first time -- he has family ties to France -- but now, “It came back. It really did. The beach is the same.”
He saw again the wide, open expanse he crossed under fire from German gunners situated on bluffs to his left, right and center. “The tide was coming in,” he recalled. That made for a long, perilous run to any shelter.
Opposite the beach Piper helped dedicate the Ever Forward monument, a statue symbolizing the men of the 116th regiment, who were meant to be the first wave on Omaha Beach. Piper remembers watching from his landing craft as they were cut to pieces. Thus, his 115th regiment was hurriedly pushed into the deadly maelstrom ahead of schedule.
The statue depicts a desperate G.I. under fire, moving off the beach, rifle in hand and yet pulling a wounded a comrade behind him. In the speeches today, Piper noted, “There were references to the water turning red.” That wasn’t mere hyperbole. “It did run red.”
The beach was crowded again this June 6 with roughly 1,000 people, including many grateful French. Having risen sometime before 4 a.m. to get there, the veterans were given the kind of pick-me-up not available 70 years ago -- Calvados, an apple brandy that is a specialty in Normandy.
“It was like a bolt of lightning,” Piper laughed. “It’s the kind of thing you can use in a lighter. It will work in your car’s radiator. It kicked you over for the day.”
They offered a toast to the fallen. A band played “Eventide.”
“It was very emotional,” said Piper. Holding hands, they received a blessing.
It was only four or five years ago, he says, that he put aside his reticence to speak about his wartime experiences. Family members convinced him to tell his story, along with the stories of those who fought at his side, many of whom never got the chance to speak.
At first he put it down in writing. “The next thing I knew I was being asked out to speak.” And that got easier over time. He even goes to schools to remind young people just what was required to purchase the freedom and ease so many of us take for granted.
Piper reports encountering a number of VIPs yesterday, including Secretary of State John Kerry, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Bay State Congressman Michael Capuano.
“I knew there was a lot brass there,” he joked. “A lot of suits and blow-dry haircuts.”
In addition, he saw serving officers and men of today’s U. S. military. For that matter, in his speech, Obama cited the sacrifices of these men and women. Impressed by the ones he met in Normandy, Piper said, “I can see what the president meant.”
In addition to Obama, French President Francois Hollande gave an address. “There was no translation,” Piper said. “But I could tell he was worked up. They were both pretty good.”
The gratitude expressed by the French people has been overwhelming. “We met these people in the bocage country, some of whom had been there during the war, and some who had relatives who remembered the war.”
Piper could scarcely go anywhere without being thanked by emotional French citizens, or asked to pose for pictures or give an autograph. He joked that it will be an adjustment to return to the North Shore and blend into the crowd.
In the days to come, he intends to revisit the bocage, or hedgerow, country and meet with the people. It is the area where some of the toughest fighting went on, where he was wounded outside of St. Lo.
He will also visit the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-James, where relatives have asked to him to visit the graves of loved ones. And he will return to the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer. Both places affirm a quote from Gen. Colin Powell, who once said of the American military, “The only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead.”
For his part, Piper found it difficult to move about the Colleville cemetery yesterday, as it was crowded with people, including a lot of press, filmmakers and dignitaries.
At a quieter time he will pass among the rows of crosses and stars. The cemetery “is beautifully kept,” he said. “Immaculate.”
There he will visit with men he knows by name, men who came ashore at his side and never left.