ST. JAMES, France – On this bright and brisk day in the Brittany American Cemetery on the outskirts of this small French town, the long journey was about to end; joyful and tearful memories were about to be explored. The promise made decades ago was about to be fulfilled.
“Someday, I will kneel at your grave.”
The morning silence was interrupted only by the whispers of wind flowing through the muscular trees standing guard over the 4,409 graves marked by rows of marble white crosses and Stars of David, the final resting places for American soldiers who had lost their lives in two world wars.
There were no other visitors. It was exactly the right moment to complete the too-long-delayed journey to say goodbye in person to a cousin. Well, actually, he was more like an extra big brother. His name was Donald.
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And there it was, in Section G, Row 4, a simple inscription on the cross: Pvt. Donald J. Monti, Aug. 28, 1944. Mississippi.
The names are engraved on the west side so that the fallen will be facing home.
Donald was 19, just 15 months out of high school, when he was killed in the brutal 46-day battle for the city of Brest, the westernmost port in France, a vitally important entry point for supplies. We don’t know the precise location where he died or how he was killed.
We do know Brest was razed, except for the skeletons of some medieval stone buildings.
By the time the battle ended on Sept. 19, Allied troops had liberated Paris and the Germans had rendered the Brest port facilities useless. From that point on, rather than attacking other port cities, the Allies would surround them until the end of the war.
Sometime in September, an Army chaplain, along with my father, went to Aunt Leonie’s home to deliver the tragic news. When she saw them, words were not necessary. She knew. Her gangly, gentle and generous teenage son would not be coming home.
A gold star would hang in the window, a sign of the family’s sacrifice, a sign that appeared in thousands and thousands of homes across the land.
Teachers escorted the younger family members from our classrooms and in hushed tones told us what had happened.
The extra big brother would no longer be there to play games with us kids, to be a presence in our lives. Why? That was our innocent question.
Perhaps we were too young to understand, but age and the passing of years haven’t made it any easier. There have been no wars to end all wars. And there may never be.
If we needed any additional reminders, the day of our visit here was, by chance, Sept. 11, a date that has been etched in the minds of all who were around on that frightful day of terror in 2001. Sept. 11 also was the date in 1944 when the first Allied troops entered Germany on the way to victory over the unimaginable evil unleashed by Adolf Hitler, a victory that had come at an irreplaceable cost in lives.
Not far away, you can visit the larger Normandy American Cemetery overlooking the 5-mile-long sandy Omaha Beach, the site of the longest day of the D-Day invasion. There are 9,387 graves, hundreds of visitors and a moment of deep emotion when the national anthem is played, followed by taps, to once again honor the dead.
Do the arithmetic. Almost 14,000 members of the American armed forces are buried in these two cemeteries alone, plus another 2,055 whose identities are known but whose bodies were never recovered. And then there are those whose “names are known but to God.” The numbers are just a fraction of the total count.
As the writing on a wall in the small chapel in the Brittany cemetery reminds us, it wasn’t the weapons that made victory possible but the indomitable spirit of the men who wielded the weapons. The spirit, the bravery, the sacrifice of those who came home and those who didn’t. The spirit, the bravery, the sacrifice of “the greatest generation.”
Pvt. Donald J. Monti, Aug. 28, 1944, Mississippi, was one of the many.
Now, the journey is at last finished. The promise has been kept. The long goodbye is complete.