By Robert Rietz
The most memorable moment in our vacation earlier this year happened at the beach. The sight brought tears to my eyes, only I wasn’t looking out at the ocean, I was looking in, toward the beach.
Walking in the sand about 200 yards into the English Channel during low tide, I stopped where seawater separated me from a sand bar another 200 feet further. Seventy-nine years ago, a landing craft may well have lowered its door on that very sandbar. The Americans aboard charged toward the beach, but water quickly rose to their necks, or higher, within the first few steps.
The fortunate soldiers waded, or swam, to where I was standing. Their next challenge was sprinting 200 yards in the sand with an 80-pound pack on their back and carrying a 10-pound M-1 Garand rifle. That was a long way to run with bullets whizzing past, kicking up whirlpools in the water around them. Two hundred yards got even longer when passing a former friend lying face down in a pool of crimson sand.
One thought haunted me while I walked those 200 yards back to a gentle bluff, with stairs leading up to a parking lot. “How did they do it? How did they manage to make it here, from way back where they started, with entrenched soldiers trying to kill them?”
Military historians have documented the movements and progress of each D-Day landing craft and determined the paths those soldiers used to make it to the same gentle bluff and overwhelm the defenders. But my question is metaphysical, not historical. How did these brave men find it within themselves to keep moving forward into danger against death-defying odds?
Two U.S. presidents fought in World War II, and both narrowly survived unsuccessful contact with the enemy. John F. Kennedy skippered a PT boat that was rammed in half by a Japanese warship. He saved a crewman’s life by gripping the man’s life jacket strap in his teeth and swimming them to an island almost four miles away. Kennedy coordinated his crew’s rescue almost a week later after swimming more miles to another island.
George H.W. Bush joined the Navy after high school and soon qualified to fly a dive bomber, the Avenger, requiring skill and nerves of steel. The 20-year-old naval aviator flew 57 successful missions in 1943 and 1944, also in the Pacific Theater. On his 58th mission, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, forcing him to ditch his plane. He floated alone in a life raft for several hours in the vast Pacific Ocean before being rescued by a submarine.
What can we learn from these historical examples?
Perhaps they taught us the importance of commitment to a greater good, and to place the greater good above personal objectives. Perhaps it was learning how strong the country can be when we are united. The Tuskegee Airmen served a pivotal role as fighter and bomber pilots. Women contributed to the war effort in the nation’s factories and in the Women’s Army Corps.
Peacetime examples of working together also abound in our country’s history. The New Deal put the unemployed to work, building schools, hospitals, bridges, libraries, and a local favorite, the Blue Ridge Parkway. President Eisenhower championed the Interstate Highway System. Could you even imagine a lengthy road trip today without getting on an expressway?
America put the first man on the moon despite lagging badly at the start of the space race. No other country has even come close to that achievement. The entire nation was glued to their television sets for our initial entries into space and eventually to the moon. I remember, and some readers likely remember, where they were when Apollo 11 landed, or when the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft made a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Achievements like these are within our reach when we work as one. As professionals, we can learn from these and many other historical examples by coming together as one profession, serving a greater good for the public through our service as actuaries to our principals and clients.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”