Cliff Burks, 93, concedes his memory isn’t what it once was, but some things you just don’t forget.
The weather, for one, on that historic June 6 in 1944, when the United States and allied troops invaded “Fortress Europe” at Normandy — the largest air, land and sea invasion in history — wasn’t so different from the Wednesday he was interviewed — overcast, Burks said.
“We were tough, and we didn’t give up,” Burks said. “But we lost a lot of people to do what we did. We just knew we couldn’t let Germany and Hitler win.”
Burks, now of Dickinson, counts himself a member of a dwindling group. He was manning a 5-inch gun aboard the battleship USS Nevada on June 6, 1944, providing fire support to the Allied invasion force as it made the landing during the Invasion of Normandy.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the start of that historic campaign.
“There was a time when I could refer you to so many great veterans of the Normandy Invasion,” said Mike Guarino, an attorney and member of the Rotary Club of Galveston, who organizes a Memorial Day event each year to recognize veterans. “I’m telling you, they’re almost all gone, I think.”
There are about 496,777 World War II veterans alive today, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About 348 die each day, according to estimates.
The list of Galveston County residents who took the beaches of Normandy during the war included Ross Novelli Sr., who died in 2016 at the age of 97, Guarino said. Former Galveston Councilman Fletcher Harris was another one, Guarino said.
“We went in wondering what we were doing in the war to begin with,” Burks said. “But then we started to see how the Germans mistreated the French and everyone else, and we understood.”
Burks left Ball High School in Galveston and joined the Navy when he was just 17, he said. He was only one of a large cohort of Galveston County residents to join the war effort after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, said Cindy Burks, his eldest daughter.
Normandy remains the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving almost 3 million troops crossing the channel from England to occupied France. About 29,000 Americans died during the Normandy campaign, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. More than 500,000 troops from all nations were killed, wounded or listed as missing after the battle.
Burks remembers telling those who would take the beaches to keep their heads down so he wouldn’t accidentally shoot them, and shooting his gun from the ship just 4 feet over their heads, he said.
But to the millions of Americans who weren’t around in 1944, Normandy has become history. That can be both a good thing, and a bad thing, according to cultural experts.
“Historical memory can live on beyond the generations that were exposed to events,” said Joachim Savelsberg, a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota. “We all have a memory of things that occurred before we were born — the Civil War — or in place in which we were not present — Sept. 11. Research shows that for World War II, people remember it irrespective of cohort or generation membership. Yet, even when memory lives on, its character changes.”
Burks, for one, doesn’t hear people talking about the war as much as they once did. But he also isn’t sure it should be forced on people, he said.
“People who lived during World War II, for example, say it was important because they lost a close friend or family member,” Savelsberg said. “Or, if they were back home because they had to stand in line for food or, if women, they did kinds of work that used to be more commonly done by men.
“Younger generations who did not experience the war are more likely to remember it as a significant event because the U.S. helped free the world of fascism and Nazism or some notion of heroism.”
Burks compares it to an exercise he participated in at church once, in which one parishioner told a story to another and then that person told it to yet another, and so on down the line. By the time it came back around, it morphed into a different story entirely, he said.
“The concern I have is that younger generations may not remember the hardship and pain, but rather just the glory,” Savelsberg said.