The writer William Zinsser left many good things behind when he died earlier this month at age 92, and one of them is a clearer understanding of the sacrifices we honor with today’s observance of Memorial Day.
Zinsser is best known for a small book, “On Writing Well,” that’s sold millions of copies because of its simple advice on how to write a decent sentence. Zinsser learned to write as a soldier in North Africa during World War II. “That’s where I learned that writers can write anywhere,” he later recalled.
Zinsser’s military service made him deeply aware of what people endured when they went to war. Which is why, when he published a new edition of a book called “American Places,” Zinsser decided to add a chapter on Omaha Beach, that part of Normandy, France, where so many soldiers had come ashore — and died — during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
Louisiana’s special connection to D-Day is well-known. The amphibious Higgins boats, designed and built by flamboyant New Orleans entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Higgins, helped make the Allied invasion of Normandy — and the liberation of Europe from the Nazis — a success. Higgins’ role in the invasion inspired the creation of the D-Day Museum in New Orleans, which eventually became the National WWII Museum.
But even with the Higgins boats, the Allied landing at Normandy proved a terrible ordeal. And so, when Zinsser was revising “American Places,” his collection of travel pieces about great American landscapes, he felt it was more than fitting to add the chapter on Omaha Beach.
What’s a stretch of French coastline doing in a book that features such iconic American sites as Mount Rushmore, Lexington & Concord, Niagara Falls and Kitty Hawk? For Zinsser, the answer was simple. The military cemetery above Omaha Beach where American soldiers are buried is an American place, a gift from the French government.
At the cemetery, Zinsser recalled, “I walked among the graves, reading the names and dates on the crosses. The date June 6, 1944, recurred with terrible frequency; for most of these men, their first day of combat was also their last.”
“Most people don’t give themselves a long-range destiny; life is a kind of rambling thing,” a cemetery official told Zinsser. “But here they look at these graves and it hits them: ‘Those men died for a set of values, and they still represent those values. Those men did something very unselfish.’”
That kind of selflessness in the service of country —valor that has expressed itself in many times and in many places of American history — demands our respect and remembrance this Memorial Day and every day of the year.