Editor's Note: Bob Ryan wrote this letter to his four children in late 2006, after visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. This column is dedicated to his good friend, James Banigan Sr., of Williamsville, a member of the Greatest Generation who proudly served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Banigan is a member of the Lorenzo Burrows Post of the American Legion, which meets each Veterans Day in the Saturn Club in Buffalo.
Dear Linda, David, Daniel and Kelly,
Whenever we go traveling, I think of coming home with gifts just simple things as a remembrance.
I send each of you a very special gift from this journey. It cost me nothing, but comes from a place where it cost Americans everything.
We drove all morning through driving rain and mistaken directions. We were lost at least three times and probably added one hour to a two-hour trip. We started in Monet country in France en route to Normandy and the scene of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Our specific quest was the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.
After many wrong turns, we finally arrived at our destination about noon on Oct. 9. We entered the parking lot under overcast skies and could easily see that the gray day and the season made us two of only 50 to 100 visitors.
Signs directed us toward the entrance. We entered the Omaha Beach cemetery and immediately saw a place of meticulous care and beauty. The grass was brilliant green, even under the overcast. A Visitor Center was apparent, but we turned and entered the path to the cemetery denoted with a simple sign that said, "Silence and Respect."
We walked a short distance among beautiful trees with the only sound being birds chirping and wind in the trees.
And suddenly there it was. We both gasped with a sob in our throats. There before us in precise rows -- diagonally, vertically and horizontally -- were the white limestone markers on the graves of 9,387 Americans who died here. It was one of the most seminal moments of our lives. The tears just came and came and came.
We walked slowly without any words. We went our own ways with our own thoughts. We saw graves of men from Nebraska, Maine, New Mexico and every state. Most bore crosses but a few Stars of David were evident. War does not differentiate.
I came upon the grave of one of the three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients buried there -- Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Yes, it is the grave of the son of a president, the highest-ranking officer to be decorated with the Medal of Honor in World War II.
After our individual strolls and our individual thoughts, we met at a stone depiction of the D-Day scene poised on the edge of the 300-foot cliffs that the Americans and British stormed. Nearby was a statue where sixth-grade children from a school just across the English Channel had laid flowers that morning on a day trip.
We looked down the steeply inclined cliff and saw a paved path to the beach. Despite the difficulty of the return climb, we decided to go to the beach. I thought that our journey back to the top would be arduous, but nothing compared to what our fellow Americans faced on D-Day.
We reached the beach with its copper-colored sand at high tide and could see remnants of 62 years ago still protruding from the sea. Stones tossed up by the surf lay at the line between sand and sea grass. I thought of young men who saw the same thing in their last moments on earth. And once more we cried.
We looked west toward the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and east to Juno, Sword and Gold beaches. We both bent to pick up stones and just then, at 1 p.m., the carillon tower high above us in the cemetery began to peel with "It's A Grand Old Flag." We could only stop and cry once more.
The climb back to the top was very difficult, but we never ceased to remember how awful it must have been for those fine young men who did it so long ago.
And so I come to the conclusion of my recollections of Omaha Beach and send you this very special memento. Enclosed is your gift -- a stone from Omaha Beach. Please keep it forever. It embodies sacrifice, courage, honor and bravery. We are all free Americans because men like the fallen heroes at Omaha Beach paved the path to victory.
It was one of the most moving days of my life. God bless America.
Bob Ryan, a Buffalo native and longtime resident of Grand Island, now lives in Bayonet Point, Fla.