By Arthur H. Gunther III
PIERMONT, N.Y. — This Hudson River village just north of New York City is where the Normandy Day landings were staged, literally. It was from the pier here that U.S. Army soldiers and their units gathered to be taken to the large ships at New York and then across the Atlantic to England, to the Channel, to the historic World War II battles. Earlier, others had left for the North African and Italian campaigns. There is a statue of “G.I. Joe” in this community, and we are reminded every time we pass of the great sacrifices offered by the 1.1 million men who walked through Piermont 1943-45.
As a newspaperman some years ago, I was privileged to offer remarks standing next to Joe, not as tall as he, not even as humble, but in sincerity. I repeat them now in his honor, in the honor of all our veterans of all our wars and conflicts and for those who serve(d) in peacetime, too.
“We are not alone here, at this corner, on this Memorial Day. In our humble tribute, we are surrounded and saturated by the spirits of the good people who marched by in 1943, ’44 and ’45.
• The young man from Wisconsin who saw his mother’s face on a woman he did not know, sitting on her porch off Paradise Avenue as he passed. Soon enough he would be with the 36th Infantry Division at Cassino, and the images of the two women would become one, warming his soul in the cold of battle hell.
• The fellow from Camden, New Jersey, brought to Camp Shanks in the middle of the night on a troop train, who a few weeks later would ride on a transport driven to the Piermont Pier by one of the many women of the home war effort. Maybe he recalled her deft steering of the deuce and a half when he saw the Red Ball Express materiel delivery teams after the breakout at St. Lo and the race to the Rhine.
• The two brothers who last touched American soil at Piermont, one off to the U.S. II Corps at the Kasserine Pass and the other with the 45th Infantry at Ragusa, Sicily. Only one son would make it back to this good earth.
• The older man, a private anyway, who was not drafted but who joined and became “Pop” with the 106th Infantry at the Battle of the Bulge. The calm hills over Piermont, one of his last sights of America, were in his mind in bitter cold, snowy woods of that awful blitzkrieg December.
• The fellows who shaped up at Shanks for the 32nd Field Artillery and the First Medical Battalion, units that saw a quiet U.S. sendoff and then the shouting, cataclysmic horror of D-day and D-day plus one.
• And all the men, almost all civilian soldiers, once machinists, salesmen, the unemployed, farmers, professional workers, sons and fathers, neighbors and strangers, immigrants and Native Americans and all whose forebears came to this nation free or not.
They are the spirits who once moved as humanity through this Piermont, past this spot where the inanimate but full-of-life G.I. Joe statue gives constant nod to their service, their courage, their sacrifice, their protection of one another.
This scene of continual reverence plays not only on this Memorial Day in Piermont, but on every day of the year, in every year, in every small and big town in these United States. Not one community has been left untouched in the world wars, by the Korean and Vietnam wars, and now by Iraq.
Wars are fought by the then living and endured for decades afterward by the survivors. The memorials we erect to those gone are in worthy and humble tribute and comfort the living, but it cannot end there.
What Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg must be remembered, must be repeated at each gathering such as this:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
Many good people, many ordinary ones made so extraordinary in calamity’s forging, marched past this little spot in Piermont on the way to war. Not all returned, and those who did had to live the lives of their buddies, too, fulfilling the promises of a safe and secure democracy, so that, as Lincoln added, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
You hear such voice still, here in Piermont, from the one-million-plus spirits who passed through to the European Theatre of War. They will never stop speaking, in this village and in all of this America.
We must listen.”
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.