PIERMONT, N.Y. -- In the 67 years today since the allied landings at Normandy and other French beaches began in earnest the push to Germany, suburbia has replaced what was the staging ground for the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was in Piermont that Army personnel and their massive equipment lined up to board Hudson River boats that would bring them to New York City and overseas carriers. And it was in nearby Orangeburg that 1.3 million Army personnel were processed through the largest East Coast port of embarkation. Indeed, the order of battle for D-Day began at Shanks as units were assembled in logistics and support.
On this day of remembrance, anyone with a smattering of that history who walks in this village, this “Last Stop USA,” just less than 20 miles from Gotham, cannot fail to touch the spirits of the good people who marched by in 1943, ’44 and ’45.
Some years back, in a Memorial Day speech I gave in Piermont, dedicating the life-sized, bronze statue of G.I. Joe that watches over the soldiers’ route, I tried to put stories to the men:
• 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 Kasserine Pass and the other with the 45th Infantry at Ragusa, Sicily. Only one son would make it back.
• The older man, still a private, 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 just in Piermont but 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 and Afghanistan.
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: “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 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.