Two nonagenarians were buried in snow-covered cemeteries in the Merrimack Valley this past winter, both having outlived most of their friends and families. James McCue, 97, of Lawrence, died in February and was buried in Bellevue Cemetery. Albert “Al” Corn, 95, of Methuen, passed away about a month later and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery on North Lowell Street, about two and a half miles away.
Besides their advanced years, McCue and Corn had the Army in common. McCue, who grew up in Lawrence, enlisted at age 20 and served from 1943 until 1945. Corn, who emigrated with his family from Poland to Connecticut when he was young, enlisted the same year. Both participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy, launched 75 years ago today.
Something else connected McCue and Corn. In view of what were likely to be modest graveside gatherings, the call went out for people willing to pay their respects. That elicited at both services crowds of people who’d never had the privilege of meeting either gentleman but whose sentiments and respect were deeply felt all the same.
There was Joyce Douglas of Londonderry, whose nephew died in Afghanistan nine years ago. “If we can come out and, you know, stand up for them, it’s a honor to do so. It really is,” she told a reporter at the service for Corn. “… We’re their family. We wouldn’t have a family if it wasn’t for them.”
Michelle Simpson, of Haverhill, brought her 4-year-old granddaughter, Kennedy, to the funeral for McCue. She was joined by some 400 other people — veterans, military members, firefighters, police and just regular folks — a sight that gave her pause, according to reporter Jill Harmacisnki’s account.
“Look at how many people are here,” said Simpson. “This is wonderful — just so beautiful.”
And thus a grateful community said good-bye.
Which brings us to today, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
It is a striking fact of this milestone anniversary of the beginning of the liberation of France that the number of people still around to tell the story is shrinking fast. That is especially significant given the sheer number of people involved in the invasion — more than 150,000 servicemen on June 6, 1944 — not to mention the legions more who followed them to help push the Allied army toward Cherbourg, St. Lo and, eventually, Paris.
But the men who stormed the beaches and fought in the hedgerows in their teens and twenties -- and who've survived -- at this point have lived full lives. Fewer than 497,000 of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II were still alive as of last year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Another 348 American veterans of World War II die every day, on average.
That fact became clear in the weeks leading to today’s anniversary, as our reporters went searching for survivors of those landings in Normandy but found few, if any, living locally. A number of other World War II veterans who did their part to free Europe are still with us, but most of those who parachuted from airplanes or went ashore 75 years ago today have passed on.
Their departure makes today's commemorations, much like those gatherings this past winter, more symbolic -- but no less important. They represent a passing of the baton. What the veterans gave and accomplished is no longer something remembered and shared as much as it is studied. And as personal experiences of the living turn into pages of history, the onus passes to generations that did not fight in France and Europe to recognize their sacrifices and honor their cause.
Fortunately one doesn’t have to look far to read about the odds they faced or the terrible cost of their success. Memories may stray from time to time, but we nor the world will never forget.