On the 20th anniversary of D-Day in 1964, Dwight D. Eisenhower led Walter Cronkite through the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach where 9,388 headstones honor the Americans who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy during World War II. The former president, reflecting on his tenure as Supreme Allied Commander, observed: “these young boys, so many of them over whose graves we have been treading, looking at, and contemplating their sacrifices, they were cut off in their prime…they have families that grieve for them.”
As they walked through the cemetery, the broadcaster began to read aloud the engraved names and home states of several fallen Americans, until he came across one of many unmarked graves: “Unknown soldier…known only to God.”
This Memorial Day weekend, we have a responsibility to ensure that these brave men who sacrificed their lives to defend our freedom are remembered, and that their stories and legacies endure for generations.
We can thank scores of Americans for picking up where Cronkite and Eisenhower left off. The nonprofit, grassroots initiative, Stories Behind the Stars, engages thousands of volunteers nationwide to research and publish the stories of our fallen heroes. Its founder, Don Milne, started the project in Utah to document the 2,095 servicemen who never returned home from World War II. His project has met with great success. Using ancestry databases and online newspaper archives, Milne and volunteers in every state have contributed stories about their family members and have participated by writing dozens of entries themselves
For many families, this project brings the remarkable lives of their loved ones to new light. When I read them, I am moved by their heroism. They sacrificed their lives to protect their brothers in arms and to preserve the ideals of freedom from the threat of fascism.
I am moved also by their familiarity. Their family lives, educational and career backgrounds, and even their aspirations are so relatable that it’s easy to forget the eight decades of time which separate our lives from theirs.
Two such stories:
“Howard Deal Merrill had a younger sister and a younger brother. He was a graduate of Ogden High School, and by 1940 Howard graduated from the US Naval Academy. “Hailing from the Rockies,” his yearbook was inscribed, “he brought a little of their ruggedness and determination with him. Once Ute makes up his mind, not even dynamite can change it.” On the morning of December 7, 1941, Ensign Merrill was on duty onboard the USS Arizona when it was hit by four Japanese bombs. His battle station was the central engine room. He remains entombed in the USS Arizona Memorial, and was most likely the first Utahn killed in World War II.” Full story by Don Milne.
“Jack C. Fuller was born and raised on the family farm with his three brothers and two sisters in Eden, Utah. When he was a senior in high school, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Before leaving to serve in the Army, Jack proposed to his high school love Elenore, and they were soon married. In 1945, Jack was sent to the Pacific with the 11th Airborne Division, which was involved in the invasion of Luzon island in the Philippines. While patrolling the island jungles, PFC Fuller was killed instantly — 12 days before the Japanese surrender, and less than 10 months after he married his soulmate Elenore. He was 21 years old.” Full story by Troy Burnett.
Our fallen heroes shouldn’t exist in history as merely a name and rank on a memorial marker. Stories Behind the Stars continues to add new volunteers to reach the goal of successfully documenting all 400,000 fallen World War II Americans, but they need our help. I encourage you to read their stories and learn how to get involved in their effort.
As he overlooked the hallowed burial grounds and its acres of cascading marble headstones, President Eisenhower offered a final moment of reflection. Turning to Mr. Cronkite, he said, “I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see scenes as these. I think, hope, and pray, that humanity will learn more than we had learned up to that time. But these people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us so that we can do better than we had before.”
This Memorial Day, let the sacrifices that our fellow Americans have made and continue to make serve as a reminder that we must work together to heal the divisions among us, strengthen our national bonds, and defend our American way of life. May the stories of the fallen guide our path forward as they remind us of the true cost of freedom.
“We must find some way to gain an eternal peace for this world,” Eisenhower concluded in solemn, yet optimistic reflection.
Romney is the junior senator from Utah.
Opinion published on The Hill.