By Tom Davis, Vice President, Susan Davis International
It is Memorial Day; a singular day set aside to honor and remember those veterans who gave their lives in sacrifice to this nation. There is much to remember.
June 6, 1944. D-Day. One hundred fifty thousand soldiers from Canada, The United Kingdom, and the U.S. stormed the beaches of Normandy facing withering fire, taking enormous casualties. Among the roughly 10,000 casualties of that historic day was Sergeant Robert J. Niland, killed while manning his machine gun. A day later, Sergeant Niland’s older brother, Second Lieutenant Preston T. Niland, was killed near Utah Beach.
The Niland brothers were from Tonawanda, New York. On the day “Bob” Niland was killed, his parents received a telegram informing them that their oldest son, Edward F. Niland, a tail gunner on a B-25 Mitchell bomber, was missing in action. Within days, two more telegrams would arrive.
There was a fourth Niland brother. Sergeant Frederick W. “Fritz” Niland. Sergeant Niland was also fighting in Normandy, earning a bronze star for his actions on June 12. He went looking for his brother Bob, only to learn that he might be the one surviving Niland brother. The epic war film “Saving Private Ryan” was born out of the sadness of the Niland family.
In the way skeins of fate intertwine, the Niland brothers’ father, Mike “The Bull” Niland, served under Teddy Roosevelt as a member of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Somewhere there is a fading, sepia toned photo of Mike Niland, and Teddy Roosevelt, staring out from among a group of Rough Riders. Whatever they were focused on, they surely did not see the future.
Twenty years after Roosevelt’s Rough Riders disbanded, Teddy Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was killed in aerial combat over France. His combat career lasted nine days. He was 20 years old.
All four of Roosevelt’s sons served during World War I. His oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., a regimental commander, was gassed and wounded. But he returned to combat, and after the war ended helped found the American Legion. When World War II beckoned, Roosevelt Jr. again returned to combat. Brigadier General Roosevelt distinguished himself in North Africa and Sicily, and became the only general and oldest man to land in the first wave on D-Day. A month later General Roosevelt was dead of a heart attack. He had long concealed a heart condition. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the D-Day invasion.
General Roosevelt lies in the American Normandy Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Next to him lies his brother Quentin. A short distance away lie the Niland brothers.
The stories of the Roosevelts, and the Niland brothers, are remarkable. But there are many more who lie in rest and must be remembered. There are 9,386 stories to be told by the grave markers in the American Normandy Cemetery. Another 1,557 are honored on the Walls of the Missing. The graves are tended to, the stories told by a little known federal agency, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).
In Normandy, alphabetically the names cared for and remembered start with Peter Adland, and end with Michael Zyla Jr. Perhaps fittingly, both were immigrants. Corporal Adland, a fisherman born in Norway, became a U.S. citizen when he enlisted in 1942. Private Zyla, born in Poland in 1916, emigrated to New York, returned as a member of the 39th Infantry Division, and was killed in action on June 14, 1944. The United States was and is a nation of immigrants. Nearly 500,000 immigrants from 46 nations served in America’s armed forces during World War I. Thirteen immigrants born in twelve different countries would offer such acts of courage and heroism that they were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for heroism. In World War II nearly 300,000 immigrants served in our armed forces. In all, 20 percent of the Medals of Honor awarded throughout our history have gone to immigrants.
It has been said that death is the great equalizer. That compelling truth shines from every white marble gravestone that rises over the grave of a fallen American in each of ABMC’s 26 overseas cemeteries. The famous lie next to the little known, the sons of Presidents and titans of industry next to the sons of farmers and factory workers. There is no distinction based on race, color, or creed, all are honored, all are cared for, all are remembered.
When it was proposed that the fallen be brought back to this nation for burial, then former President Roosevelt, speaking about his son Quentin, objected, saying, “We have always believed, that ‘where the tree falls, there let it lie.’…” He later wrote in typical fashion, “But all of us who give service, and stand ready for sacrifice, are the torch-bearers. We run with the torches until we fall… “
It is left for those who remain, for those in each succeeding generation, to decide whether to pick up the torch and carry it forward. We are fortunate that so many brave men and women have become the next torch bearers.
Archibald MacLeish’s moving poem “The Young Soldiers Do Not Speak” ends thusly: “We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.”
This, last, we all can do. It is Memorial Day. Remember.
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