He was, in a way, both a large part and a small part of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944--a small part because, that day, he was just one of Gen. Omar Bradley's First Army, 73,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands Allied troops to assault occupied Europe. In sheer scale of operation, his death that day was incidental, but the role he played was immense because he was one of thousands of GIs who knew that when they'd cast off from England's shore, some would not be coming back. They knew. They had to. The cost of freedom must have been written starkly on their faces that rainy morning.
They knew, but they went anyway. That's a huge role.
He was just one of thousands, but he was, nevertheless, a man with a story, just like each of them were. Family lore says he stepped off one of those landing crafts, the one to which he'd been assigned, and just like that took a Nazi bullet. I don't know that he'd served elsewhere in the war, don't know what his role was, or how long he'd been in the service--"PVT 112 ENGR," his stone says, and then, a line below, "COMBAT BN," all upper case. Date of death: June 6, 1944.
Nor do I know what kind of horrifying impact his death had on the woman who would become my mother-in-law. I can imagine, but I don't know.
Three years after he was killed, two years after the war ended, she put her life back together and married my father-in-law, another vet, a man whose mechanical skills had been put to good use in the motor pool, where he repaired tanks and jeeps and armored vehicles behind the Allied front on the long liberating trek to Berlin.
She married my father-in-law and life continued, as it does. The name Gerrit Ter Horst was rarely spoken.
Little flags wave in the prairie wind all over the Orange City cemetery today, Memorial Day, marking the graves of veterans galore. Some stones have summaries, but most list nothing at all, only a flat American Legion medal that describes what can already be inferred from the dates carved into the granite--"World War I," "World War II," "Vietnam."
The marker for Gerrit Ter Horst sits in a little covey of white stones, a couple of dozen other vets, including my father-in-law's brother, Charles Van Gelder, who never made it out of the States, a young man who, sometime during his military training, was a drowning victim before he ever shipped over and got near a battlefield.
I don't know how the Ter Horst family talks about their ancestor's death, or whether they do at all. I hope so, because there has to be more to his story than a young woman, in tears, turning a diamond ring on her finger back home, here, in Orange City, Iowa, a woman who, years later, didn't talk about his death, never mentioned it to me at all. After all, some things simply have to be put to rest.
Last night, we discovered flowers on Uncle Charles' gravestone. Someone had remembered. Someone hadn't forgotten. It was a joy to find them there.
That there was no flowers on Gerrit Ter Horst's cemetery stone doesn't mean he's been forgotten. Last night we remembered that once upon a time, June 6, 1944, a man engaged to be married to a woman very precious to us was killed on a beach in Normandy. He left a sweetheart, and died a hero for all of us, family or not.
This morning's sky seems a perfect memorial--cloudy, a soft red band out stretching across half the horizon north, an almost heavenly red badge of courage. When I stepped out just now, a light rain was falling gently, as if the whole world outside my door, a world Charles and Gerrit must have missed terribly, was remembering, a whole world that hadn't forgotten.