COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - Onofrio Zicari had never been able to bring himself to return to the beaches of Normandy.

But this year, at 96, the retired Los Angeles milkman decided he had to come back to the place seared into his memory from the morning of June 6, 1944, when he stormed Omaha Beach in the fifth wave of incoming soldiers on D-Day. He flew from his home in Las Vegas to northern France -- nearly 5,300 miles -- to find one particular white cross in the American cemetery.

Donald Simmons was the last one out of the landing craft that morning, as Zicari and the others made their way across the water and through an onslaught of German gunfire from the ridge in the distance. Simmons was killed almost instantly, Zicari said, his hand on his friend's grave. "He was my buddy."

At 21 and 20, Zicari and Simmons were still boys on D-Day. They would have had a hard time imagining 75 years later. Only one of those boys lived to see the end of the war, the rites of marriage and fatherhood, the grandeur of what was called the American century.

Hovering above a foreign shoreline, the cemetery presents a particular image of the United States abroad. This is a memorial to a proudly internationalist society that - to quote the inscription on the memorial chapel here - sacrificed its sons "for the common cause of humanity." But, 75 years later, America's role on the world stage no longer seems as certain. The future of the postwar order won in battles like D-Day is anyone's guess.

President Donald Trump campaigned -- and won -- on the creed of "America First," a catchphrase that evokes an America entirely foreign on the beaches of Normandy and that, in any case, Zicari was uninterested in discussing. "I don't like to get into politics," he said.

When asked why he came back, he said: "So the nightmares would stop."

For presidential historian Jon Meacham, D-Day is a symbol whose meaning has changed with the times -- in the mid-1960s, it was a Cold War rallying cry; in the mid-1980s, an underpinning in Ronald Reagan's call for American restoration.

This was the essence of Reagan's iconic 1984 "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech (credited to speechwriter Peggy Noonan). "And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead," Reagan said.

In 2019, Meacham noted, the beaches of Normandy have yet another meaning.

"This year, I think many Americans who are likely to be sentimental about the story of Operation Overlord are also likely to be supporting a president whose instincts are isolationist, not interventionist, and who takes a dim view of the postwar order that more or less kept the peace for more than half a century," he said.

"These beaches teach us the steep toll of isolation and America First -- and should be perennial reminders that we cannot escape history."

In France, where Trump remains deeply unpopular, the isolationist rhetoric emanating from the White House is not necessarily seen as a sign that the transatlantic relationship enshrined in Normandy is over.

"Despite the sometimes spectacular declarations, the foundations of this relationship remain solid," said Pierre Vimont, a former ambassador to the Uited States. "There is a reality of cooperation and transatlantic relations that remains very strong."

To wander the pathways of the manicured cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer -- with 9,388 white crosses and stars of David extending as far as the eye can see -- is to contemplate the cruel specter of the what-might-have-been. The things undone, the lives unlived.

Zicari made clear everyone who experienced D-Day left something on these beaches, even those who survived. In coming back, he said he hoped for only one thing.

"I'm 96 years old. And my kids said, 'Go ahead, Dad. You'll have your closure.'"

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the Journal’s Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Load comments