D-Day Through the Decades: 1994 Commemoration

Good morning everyone,
Well here we are, one month away from the big day.  Hold on, let me try that again I don’t think I got the full range of emotion in there.   WE ARE ONE MONTH AWAY FROM D-DAY!  Even though it is a little hectic around the site, everything is starting to fall into place as we move through the final stages of planning for the 70th Anniversary. 
For all of you planning on coming to the anniversary ceremony, be sure to stay up to date on parking and other essential information by visiting the 70th Event webpage at https://www.dday.org/70th-anniversary-events.  Gates will open to the public around 8:30AM, please make sure to arrive at the satellite parking lots early enough to get the shuttle bus to the site.  We do not want anyone to miss this very special ceremony!
50th Anniversary Color Guard

With one month left, we have made it to the 50thAnniversary of D-Day – June 6, 1994.  This is a date which is dear to us here at the Memorial and one that is important for where we are today.  Again, I am going to turn to our founder, the late Sgt John Robert “Bob” Slaughter for the words to describe the events taking place in Normandy when he walked along the sands of Omaha Beach with President Bill Clinton.
By 1993, we still had no memorial, and figured the idea was DOA – dead on arrival.  Then, again, a miracle happened.  June 6, 1994, was the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day.  Public acknowledgement still was weak, but with a half-century now gone by, the Department of Defense had decided on a “last” great commemoration for D-Day veterans.  Many veterans and officials would be gathering in Normandy for the anniversary.  I, for one, wanted to be there.  The 29th Division Association assembled 150 veterans and their families – ten busloads – to make the trip to France.
The most important event of the trip for me, and for the future of the D-Day Memorial, turned out to be a forty-five minute stroll that I took with President Clinton on Omaha Beach.  I had received a phone call from the White House, informing me that I had been selected to represent the 29thDivision as one of three escorts for the president at Omaha Beach….
At 9 a.m., June 6, the big day, the White House driver met us at the hotel, precisely on time.  The preliminary ceremony was not until 2:30 p.m., so why did we need such an early start?  We soon found out.  The driver’s instructions were to proceed through Bayeus.  Our military vehicle immediately ran into gridlock traffic, and encountered many checkpoints….The master of ceremonies was Walter Cronkite, who began by describing to the hushed throng how he flew over the fleet in an American bomber early on D-Day.  Following remarks were made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General John M. Shalikashveli and Captain Joe Dawson, who then introduced President Clinton.
The president’s message was a stirring tribute to all D-Day veterans. “On these beaches the forces of freedom turned the tide to the twentieth century,” he said.  “Let us not forget when they were young, these men saved the world!”  After the speeches, the president’s handlers whisked Dawson, Ehlers, and me to the path leading to the steep steps down Omaha Beach.  Clinton began to exit, shaking hands with the front row veterans and those bold enough to reach over the front row for a touch and a handshake.  First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first to reach the three escorts.  She shook hands and thanked each of us for serving our country.  She said to me, “Thank you so much for what you did.”  I replied, “Thank you, Mrs. Clinton, for coming.”
Slaughter (on far left) walking along Omaha Beach with President Clinton
Brent Blakely reminded me that I was to walk on the president’s right, Dawson on the left, and Ehlers to the left of Dawson.  When the path narrowed at the steps, I was to step back and let Ehlers move to the president’s right.  While walking, we were to talk about our respective roles on D-Day….
I can only hope that the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day meant half as much to the President Bill Clinton as it did to Walter Ehlers, Joe Dawson, all the other D-Day veterans, and me.  That unforgettable stroll down the beach with two bona fide World War II heroes and the most powerful leader on earth changed me forever, and will always remain a highlight of my life.  The walk brought back chilling memories of 1944 that will never go away.  All the attention focused on the anniversary also gave me hope that others might finally be willing to remember as well.
President Clinton addressing the crowd on June 6, 1994
And remember we will.  In November 1994, it was officially announced that Bedford, Virginia would be the  home to the National D-Day Memorial – a place to remember the fallen and educate future generations about what happened along the Normandy coast on that longest day.  I leave you with these final words from President Clinton’s D-Day address to the US Army Rangers gathered at Pointe du Hoc on the morning of June 6, 1994.  These words ring as true today in the hearts of every staff person and volunteer at the Memorial as they did 20 years ago as we work every day to tell others about the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice made by all of these soldiers, sailors, and airmen almost 70 years ago:  We are the children of your sacrifice. We are the sons and daughters you saved from tyranny’s reach. We grew up behind the shield of the strong alliances you forged in blood upon these beaches, on the shores of the Pacific, and in the skies above. We flourished in the nation you came home to build. The most difficult days of your lives bought us 50 years of freedom. You did your job; now we must do ours. Let us begin by teaching our young people about the villainy that started this war and the valor that ended it. Let us carry on the work you began here.

Until next time, 
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