Mayor Earl Johnson was the speaker for the 2024 Memorial Day service held at the Covington Veterans Monument. The mayor shared stories of his father's service in World War II, and reminded those gathered that it is our jobs to be the kinds of Americans worth fighting for. 

The text of his speech follows:

"Today, our country pauses to observe Memorial Day, a day of reflection and remembrance of those who died while serving in the U.S. military.

"The holiday stems from the American Civil War, in which more than 600,000 Americans died.

"In the years after the Civil War, survivors on both sides of that horrific conflict began to decorate the graves of the war dead. These early Memorial Days were known as Decoration Days, and were held in late April and May, likely because there were flowers in bloom.

"Memorial Day originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I, the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.

"In 1968, Congress established Memorial Day as a federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.

"Today, we remember more than 1.3 million American soldiers who have died in service to their country. That count begins with the approximately 25,000 Revolutionary War dead, most of whom perished as a result of being held prisoner of war by the British, and continues through the War on Terror, in which more than 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice.

"As we pause on this day, I’d like to spend a few moments talking about my own family’s service.

"Eighty years ago, the United States and Great Britain were amassing more than 160,000 Allied troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Free France and Norway, in preparation for one of the greatest offenses every launched. Operation Overlord, now known as D-Day.

"My father was among those waiting in England and preparing for a yet-unknown offensive.

"He had set sail for England aboard the Queen Mary, which was double the size of the Titanic. Built in Scotland and commissioned to be part of a weekly transatlantic service, the Queen Mary was converted to a troop ship in 1939, stripped of its luxurious amenities and painted a camouflaged grey color.

"The Queen Mary could carry up to 16,000 troops at 30 knots, and outrun torpedo boats. Thus she came to be known as the “Grey Ghost.” Those 16,000 men aboard each transatlantic trip took turns sleeping in shifts, as there weren’t enough bunks for all of the troops.

"The planning for the D-Day invasion had begun years earlier, but the preparations intensified in December 1943 when U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

"As part of the plan, the Allies deceived German High Command into expecting a landing at Pas-de-Calais [pɑd(ə)kalɛ] in northern France. Instead, the Allies targeted a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline. The approximately 160,000 Allied troops were to land across five beaches, with British and American airborne forces landing inland.

"After a slight delay for weather, General Eisenhower decided to go. D-Day would be June 6, 1944. Paratroopers began landing after midnight, followed by a massive naval and aerial bombardment at 6:30 a.m.

"American forces faced severe resistance at Omaha and Utah Beaches. Despite the fierce opposition, Allied forces established a critical beachhead in Normandy.

"My father, Roland Riley Johnson, was among those who went ashore at Normandy as part of Army Company B of the 385th military police battalion. He would have been 27 years old at the time of the invasion, which was older than most of the men who were drafted into the military for World War II. He was a college graduate and had worked as a teacher and principal at a small school before joining the military.

"Probably because of Daddy’s age, he was promoted to corporal when the troops got to England, and was later promoted to sergeant.

"Eighty years ago today, Daddy and all of the other troops waiting in England could only imagine what they would see when they were finally ordered to move. In 10 short days, what they imagined became a reality.

"Daddy has described to me what it was like when they crossed English Channel - what they saw and did - and all of it was horrible. The Germans had the high cliffs of the beach highly armed and hardened, and many Allied soldiers were shot and killed as they stormed the beaches.

"The troops were transported to the shore in Higgins Boats, which were designed to carry troops from ships to open beaches. Before Andrew Jackson Higgins of New Orleans designed and manufactured these boats, the landing at Normandy would have been almost impossible. Instead, navies would have had to attack ports, which were usually heavily defended.

"The Higgins Boats allowed armies to unload across an open beach and gave them more options in choosing their attack points. The design was adapted from boats used in the bayous of Louisiana, and had been patented only four months before the D-Day invasion.

"Daddy recalled the heavy shelling as they went ashore. A lot of men never got out of the boats.  He also described what was going on, up close to the beach where the troops walked out of the water.

"That water was red with American blood.

"At some point, he was put in charge of a squad of men. Their job was to provide protection to the trains used to move troops through the country. They would escort troops and supplies on the train, then have to get back to escort the next group the best way they co

"It was on a trip back south that Daddy was wounded. He and his men would travel on foot close to the rail line. On this particular day, there were German planes strafing the area and he was wounded in the leg. The injury put him out of action for only a short while before he was back with his unit.

"You’ve seen the scenes in the World War II movies of snipers preying on American troops. Daddy also had a story about a sniper they encountered in Germany – a woman barricaded in a bell tower.

"He and his men often had to fend for themselves, finding a meal wherever they could. He told a story about stopping in a café when he had not eaten for three days. The proprietor told him that the café was closed. Daddy took out the long trench knife he carried at his side and slammed it into the table.

"His men ate that day.

"Like most of the Americans in World War II, Daddy was no stranger to hunger. He had survived the Depression as the child of farmers in rural Conecuh County, Alabama, and knew what it meant to not have enough to eat.

"In another story he often told of fending for his men in Europe, he took cabbages from a garden to cook for his small group. When his commanding officer learned of this offense, he was ordered to scrape up some money and pay the farmer for the produce.

"The 385th was with the fight through France and Belgium, and was in Germany when the Germans surrendered.

"During this same time, Daddy had two brothers also serving with the Army. They went into Europe after the initial landing at Normandy, and were quickly shipped farther north. Both fought in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945. By this time, the Allies’ supply lines had been stretched thin, and our troops were not prepared for the attack, nor for the freezing temperatures in the Ardennes.

"With God’s grace, Daddy and his brothers all made it home, unlike the 405,399 Americans who perished in World War II. 

"Most of the stories he told us were the light-hearted ones about finding something to eat, or meeting up with one of his brothers in France, and an impromptu trip they took to Paris.

"But the war never left him. At the end of his life, my brother Sam and I were standing at the foot of his hospital bed, talking with two of our cousins. All of a sudden, Daddy looked around and called me to his side. He said, “Tell those men not to go that way. There’s a bunch of Germans around there.”

"As we look back across those 80 years, it’s difficult for us to fathom the magnitude of the losses, and the sacrifices made by Americans to keep the world free. It’s a call Americans have answered time and again. It’s a price Americans paid with the blood of its finest.

"It is said that a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.

"On this day, it is those 1.3 million heroes who gave their lives for the freedoms that were bigger than themselves whom we somberly remember and honor. We especially  remember the 280 men whose names are on our own Covington Veterans Monument.

"As President Kennedy once said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter the words, but to live by them.”

"It is our jobs to be the kinds of Americans worth fighting for."