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Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly Remarks at D-Day Commemoration

Below are Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s remarks on the Cleveland D-Day 75th Commemoration Event at League Park, June 6, 2019.

Good afternoon, everyone.  Mayor Jackson, General Dziedzeski, executives of the Cleveland Indians, distinguished guests and friends, and most importantly, our heroic and cherished veterans, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here on the grounds of this historic ballpark, in this great city, to reflect on what June 6th, 1944 means to all of us.

Before I begin, I ask that you indulge me for one moment as I shamelessly give a big shout out to the ship sponsor of the USS Cleveland. You know when John F. Kennedy visited France for the first time as president in 1961 his visit was largely upstaged by Jacqueline Kennedy, whose charm, grace and style dazzled a characteristically hard to impress French citizenry.

As the trip progressed, it became obvious that Mrs. Kennedy was the real attraction, so as they said their good-byes to return the United States President Kennedy made a very famous, self-deprecating comment. He said, “I will be forever be known as the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”

So, on the occasion of this commemoration of one of the most daring and consequential endeavors in human history, I am very proud to say, “I am the man who accompanied Robyn Modly to Cleveland.”

As you all get to know her and the energy and grace she will put into the life of your ship, and it is your ship, I suspect you will be very glad that Secretary Spencer, my boss, in naming her the sponsor, recognized those qualities, too.

To the USS Cleveland Commissioning Committee, thanks so much for welcoming her with such open arms, but you need to understand one thing is that she really, really hates cold weather, so please consider that when you plan her visits to town. It will make a big difference. Trust me on that one.

To our World War II veterans, we don’t really know how to thank you today. We try year after year, but it is impossible for the gestures of our gratitude to meet the measure of your courage and your sacrifices. It is truly a blessing to see so many of you here today.

We can only imagine where you were 75 years ago. Some of you were in Normandy, some nearby, and some others in uniform in distant corners of the globe, in the fight, or exhausted from it, or about to get in it for the first time.

Here today can only imagine the sights from the cliffs of Normandy 75 years ago, the 1,213 naval combat ships, 4,126 landing ships and landing craft, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels swarming the dark, cold, unforgiving blue water of the English Channel. Most significantly, as we look into your faces today, we can only imagine the faces of the 73,000 Americans who joined with you, along with another 83,000 troops from the UK and Canada, Poland and other countries in Europe, as they approached the coast of France.

We can close our eyes, but will never see how those faces changed as they witnessed the sands of Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, littered with trucks and ammunition, awash with bodies whose souls just departed this world in advance of a noble cause.

And whether yours was one of those faces in Normandy, or in any other theatre of war from 1941 to 1945, you understand. The specifics of each of your stories are varied, and colorful, and unique, and worth documenting and sharing with every single citizen of this country who is free because of it.

But what is important about those stories is that they bind you to each other as a generation called to service at a time when the outcome was far from preordained, and to others who came after you to serve our nation in conflicts that followed — many of whom are here today as well.

You are bound to each other through your shared experience, but you are bound to us through your sacrifice, and the sacrifice of those who never returned home with you.

We think of them, and honor them today, but it is you who tie us to them.

It is you who trained with them, joked with them, smoked with them, drank with them, cried with them, fought the enemy with them, faced their fears with them, prayed to God with them, and longed for home with them.

Thirty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan spoke to an assembly of your brothers on the cliffs of Point Du Hoc in Normandy on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day.  Political analysts have used this speech to describe how brilliant it was “politically” because it tapped into a shared understanding of what Americans believed in their hearts, and their shared memories, about the sacrifices, and the reasons for the sacrifices, made by many of you, our brave Soldiers, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, Airmen, and Marines on that day.

President Reagan spoke with the steep 100-foot cliffs framing the English Channel behind him, cliffs that Army Rangers had scaled between 7:10 and 7:40 am on the morning of June 6th. The Ranger force of 250 men used only ropes and ladders while withering machine gun fire and grenades rained down on them. After two days of fighting to secure the area in and around the Point, only 90 Rangers remained in the action — the rest were either killed or grievously wounded and taken out of the fight.

The Ranger monument that stands at the top of those cliffs served as a backdrop for the President’s speech. It is simple granite pillar that resembles a dagger driven deep into the ground at the very edge of land — a land that until those Rangers arrived had been separated from the free world of civilized nations by a despotic force with a maniacal vision for the future of mankind.

No more fitting symbol could have been constructed on those cliffs. It represents a first thrust into the heart of tyranny that had subsumed the continent of Europe — and by extension, through an Axis of enemies, throughout the entire world.

The Rangers at Point Du Hoc on D-Day 75 years ago secured the ground for this monument, but the dagger it represents was forged by all Americans, like so many in this city, who mobilized the nation’s industrial capacity and provided you with the weapons of war that were required for victory.

Cleveland’s contributions to this effort cannot be overstated. They were, in a word, pivotal, to the outcome of World War II.

Armed with the power of this nation’s industrial might, the Rangers at Point du Hoc 75 years ago today secured the cliffs and made possible this historic thrust into the cold heart of oppression.

But it was all of you, our beloved veterans, who drove that dagger into the ground with all of your might, and grit, and most importantly, your love for this country — and what is good about it.

I could never attempt to match President Reagan’s words about D-Day and the collective memories he evoked when he spoke them 35 years ago. Many have written that the speech itself was a political masterpiece that helped secure his reelection.

After watching the speech, many of his political rivals realized that the 1984 election was over — even though it was still many months away.

President Reagan’s words, however, had far more significance than their political value, and to judge them purely as such diminishes their power and authenticity.

The memory of Normandy that the President evoked was real, not fabricated. It tapped into a collective national consciousness in which moral clarity and pride in American sacrifice and achievement were unambiguous.

It is our responsibility to ensure that we never lose that shared memory as a nation, despite all the forces in the media, politics, and culture that would prefer, for their own purposes, that we focus on our historical flaws and divisions.

But we are especially blessed today here at League Park. Because our inspiration to elevate that shared memory above the noise of all that divisiveness that sometimes seems to engulf us is bright and visible. It shines through the examples of patriotism, bravery, and humility of those Veterans that are here with us.  Those for whom June 6th will always carry profound meaning — as it should for all of us.

For each of them, each of you, personifies a precious, shared memory of our country in its greatest hour.

Each of them have blessed so many families throughout the Cleveland area and this nation with the honor and dignity they brought home from distant and hostile places — places that they transformed to peaceful ones solely because they knew it was their duty to do so.

Each of them leads us back to a special place, of truly living our Founding values—a place where all of us as Americans, innately know we belong — and where we still yearn to be.

One of these great and humble heroes is on the stage with me today, Mr. Emory Crowder, whom Robyn and I had the pleasure of meeting here in Cleveland last year. Emory is 95-years young and a veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II.  He was a corpsman in the Marine Corps.

Emory stormed the beaches in Saipan and Tinian, and for his bravery and accomplishment of saving lives, he was rewarded with the opportunity to keep going and invade Okinawa. He never made it to Okinawa, as a Kamikaze pilot sank his ship and he was rescued from the cold Pacific Ocean after several hours of floating with some of shipmates in shark infested waters.

I invited Emory to join Robyn and me at the Messiah concert last year at the Naval Academy. After the concert, he was surrounded by young midshipmen who took pictures with him and thanked him for his service in the obligatory way most of us do.

In response to these midshipmen, all of whom were born well after one of the last vestiges of World War II, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Emory just looked at them and said, “Thank you, I did it so that you could have THIS life.”

Today I ask that you all come to understand that this is what is good about this nation. This is the shared memory we should all embrace to resist the forces that seek to erode our confidence in our ideals and our principles. This is what you veterans remind us of every time we meet you.

Your service to this country, in this simple and modest way, has continued well beyond the time you served in uniform.  It has been your most precious gift to us as a citizenry.  You have shown us what is good and what is worth fighting for.  There is no greater inheritance you could have given us than this.

A few years ago, I had the chance to visit Normandy. I had never been there before and I really did not know what to expect. My family used to visit the beaches of North Carolina, and as a child, I remember looking out across the vast ocean from there standing with my father, who was born in Hungary and experienced the terror of war in Europe as Hungarians struggle to survive in the crossfire between Nazi coercion, and allied forces coming from both East and West. For my father, allied victory in the war gave him the opportunity to cross that body of water westward to the United States. It was a trip full of hope for a new future in a land unravaged by war.

For you, and so many others, the trip across the Atlantic was quite the opposite.

Standing on those Carolina beaches, amid their immense beauty, it is very hard to visualize what horrors and fears our troops, and many of you here today, must have felt as you approached the coast of France on June 6, 1944.

When I visited Normandy, I expected to see something different than what I saw.  Despite all that happened there, the tremendous loss of life, the devastation of buildings, and roads, and beaches, what survives today is simply and spectacularly beautiful. There is palpable reverence to the sacrifices made by so many in the defense of freedom, and a visible love for the United States as most homes in the small towns and villages fly French and American flags at the same height.

But the most stunningly beautiful place of all is the American Cemetery in Colleville sur Mer.

It is remarkable in its sheer size and immaculate in its condition.  No words need to be spoken when visiting. It speaks for itself.

The rows of burials are marked by white marble headstones, 9,238 of which are Latin crosses and 150 of which are stars of David. The cemetery contains the graves of 45 pairs of brothers (30 of which buried side by side), a father and his son, an uncle and his nephew, two pairs of cousins, three generals, four chaplains, four civilians, four women, 147 African Americans and 20 Native Americans.

307 unknown soldiers are buried among the other service members. Their headstones read “HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY A COMRADE IN ARMS KNOWN BUT TO GOD.”

These are your brothers and sisters in arms. No matter where you served, they served with you.

No one will ever know why God chose them to sacrifice it all on those battlefields 75 years ago — but perhaps it is because God wanted you to be ones who came home to be the gentle and humble reminders to the rest of us of what it means to be an American — and what it means to be GOOD.

CLEVELAND (June 6, 2019) Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly speaks to about 125 WWII veterans and guests during the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award Foundation 75th anniversary of D-Day commemoration at the Baseball Heritage Museum. Feller is a member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and WWII veteran. Modly, a Cleveland native, is participating community events commemorating those who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives in defense of their nation during WWII. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Chief Brian Dietrick/Released)

 

Thank you for everything you have done so that we, to quote our friend Emory Crowder, “could live this life.” 

Emory and each of you here today remind me something my former boss Secretary Mattis said in responding to a particularly bad day in Afghanistan. On that day our troops made some targeting mistakes that led to the loss of innocent civilian lives and in response then General Mattis said, “We are not the perfect guys but we are the GOOD guys.” 

When we look at each of you here today, we know deep in our hearts that when the nation called, you believed this about yourselves, and you believed it about your country.

Now more than ever we also need to share in that same belief.

Now more than ever, we need to do everything we can to follow the example you have set to make sure, that we not only believe it, but this belief in ourselves is also the truth.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, himself half-American, rose in the House of Commons less than two months from D-Day, and spoke in defense of the Allies’ cause. He said:

“What is this miracle, for it is nothing less, that called men from the uttermost ends of the earth, some riding twenty days before they could reach their recruiting centres, some armies having to sail fourteen thousand miles across the seas before they reached the battlefield?

“You must look very deep into the heart of man, and then you will not find the answer unless you look with the eye of the spirit. Then it is that you learn that human beings are not dominated by material things, but by ideas for which they are willing to give their lives or their life’s work.”

Today we are incredibly honored to look into the bright eyes of your spirit, deep into the hearts of each of you, and find what eternal good rests inside there for all of us to embrace, and also to have this moment to thank you for sharing it with us and with the world you saved.

God Bless you.

Thank you so much for being here, and God Bless the current generation of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, whom we send into harm’s way every day to keep us safe, and free.

Go Tribe. Go Cavs. Go Browns. Go USS Cleveland. Go Navy. Go Air Force. Go Coast Guard.

And, of course, as always, as I am obligated by tradition to say, but with love, without any offense to any of our Army brothers and sisters, BEAT ARMY!

Thank you very much.

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