This Fourth of July, we celebrate our freedom—and remember that our freedom is never guaranteed. Democracy requires our vigilance to safeguard the liberty so many have fought and died for. 

American Promise citizen leaders have made huge strides in our mission to strengthen the promise of equal representation upon which our nation was founded. We humbly take up this work building upon the efforts of American women and men over the past two centuries who have fought and died to create, secure and expand our notion of liberty and equality.

One of these patriots is 94-year-old World War II veteran Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert M. Pennoyer, a naval officer who served on the USS Pensacola in Japan. Earlier this summer, Pennoyer gave this speech at the D-Day 75th anniversary ceremony, in which he passes the torch to future generations to lead our country with the same bravery and sacrifice embodied in his own career. (Speech lightly edited for length.)

Four Freedoms Park Speech by Lieutenant Robert M. Pennoyer

Note from Mr. Pennoyer: As a WWII veteran I was invited to be one of the speakers at a ceremony on June 6 commemorating the 75th anniversary of the landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, at the memorial to FDR in Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in the East River opposite the UN. Here is the six-minute talk I gave before several hundred guests. I am told many in the audience wept. 

We gather to honor the sacrifices made by so many in the cause of freedom on this day 75 years ago, when an armada of 8,000 ships of American and allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. 

The crossing was rough. Take a moment to imagine the bravery it took to step off a landing craft when it ran aground 100 yards from the beach, and wade through the surf in the face of withering German fire. 3,000 died that morning on Omaha beach alone. But by nightfall we knew their sacrifice was not in vain, for we and our allies had landed 150,000 men, gaining a beachhead along a 50-mile front for the yearlong campaign that brought victory over Nazi Germany.

At this hallowed site it is also most fitting to pay tribute to Franklin Roosevelt, our Commander-in-Chief, who led us and our allies to victory over tyranny in Europe and Asia. I vividly recall the moment on the evening of April 12, 1945, when word passed among the crew that President Roosevelt had died. We were at battle stations heading north from the island of Okinawa, where days of kamikaze attacks caused over 10,000 casualties in our fleet, to meet remnants of the Japanese fleet coming down from Japan.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the declaration of war with Japan.
Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the declaration of war with Japan.

Franklin Roosevelt embodied the spirit of liberty that has guided the destiny of our nation throughout history. His words and actions throughout WWII are just one of many places we see the spirit of liberty that has guided the course of our nation.

We find it in those who signed the Declaration of Independence, “pledging to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, our Sacred Honor,” as they declared that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States, absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.”

We find it in the Constitution which opens with “We the People”—not we the corporations, but “We the People.”

We find it incised in stone at the Jefferson Memorial: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

We find it in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “It is for us the living…to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us…; that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We find it in the speech given in Central Park before a crowd of 150,000 a few days before the landing in Normandy by the nation’s most renowned jurist, Learned Hand: “We are gathered here to affirm a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same…What was the object that brought us…to this choice? We sought liberty…liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”

Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Jr. in jail in Birmingham

We find it in Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

We find it in John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what the country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

We find it in the brave children from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School leading the nation against the NRA.

And lastly, we find it in the Muslim father of the Captain killed in Iraq, Khizr Kahn, who came to America in the 1980s with his wife and young children, found freedom and rejoiced in the Bill of Rights that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of association. He had come from Pakistan where, in his words: “[We faced arrest] for saying the wrong thing or associating with the wrong people—or even with just too many people.”

Years later, when told he had passed the examination to become a United States citizen, he writes: “A rush of emotion came over me…I was going to be an American. No…I already was an American. In my heart, I had been for years.”

Tonight I am filled with hope, knowing that, long after I am gone, you and millions like you, imbued with that spirit of liberty, building on the sacrifices of those who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today, will strive to save our democracy and freedom as you “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”