70th anniversary of D-Day was special pilgrimage for JBLM ranger and family

Staff writerJune 22, 2014 

Mike Okita and his three sisters wanted to send his parents, both in their 80s, on their first trip to Europe.

Their mother, Rowena, wanted to see Paris.

Their father, Harold, wanted to see Normandy.

The siblings bought the tickets and worked on the timing. Early this month, Harold and Rowena left Hawaii, joined son Mike and flew to France.

“Mom got to see Paris,” said Mike Okita, a former commander with the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “We all went to Normandy.”

The scheduling couldn’t have been better. The Okitas arrived on the 70th anniversary of D-Day and were on hand for ceremonies that included speeches from President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande.

“What were my folks thinking? We listened to the presidents, and they were inspirational,” said Okita, a resident of DuPont. “But there was the disappointment for so many lives cut short. You think of the families of all those men who died – on both sides.”

Harold Okita, like his son, served in the Army.

“Dad was in the 82nd Airborne, and I served in the 82nd and then the Rangers,” Mike Okita said. “I’d been to Normandy once before, so I knew what to expect. My folks didn’t, and it was pretty emotional.

“I’d have gone anywhere with them, but being there was special.”

During ceremonies, nearly 1,000 paratroopers re-enacted a D-Day drop, filling the skies with chutes. The crowds watching included close to 2,000 veterans.

Okita, who retired in 2010 after 30 years in the Army, is now chairman of the Pointe du Hoc Foundation, a nonprofit serving Army Rangers and their families. The organization took its name from a French promontory with a 100-foot cliff overlooking the English Channel.

The D-Day assaults on the beaches of Normandy began at Pointe du Hoc, where a group of 225 Rangers took that high ground and eliminated German weapons trained on Omaha and Utah beaches. The cost was high. Only 90 Rangers survived.

Visiting that site and others was overwhelming for Mike Okita’s family.

“You’re there with soldiers, airmen, Marines and you know you’re on hallowed ground,” Okita said. “And you realize actions have far-reaching effects. At the American cemetery, all those crosses ….

“You realize the sacrifices not only of the men buried there, but of their families, as well.”

The Okitas watched as two veteran Rangers laid wreaths at the Pointe and then, for the first time, representatives of the German Army laid others.

“I think that shows how far we’ve come, that we can let both sides honor their fallen,” he said.

After the D-Day ceremonies, one of Okita’s sisters met up with their parents to continue their trip, and Okita flew home to Washington state. He couldn’t leave Pointe du Hoc behind.

“You stand on the beach and try to picture what it was like on that morning, the hail of gunfire and – if you’re not in the first wave – the smell of devastation,” he said.

“Visually, it must have been pretty horrific. On the other hand, it was a military success – what they trained for and what you’d expect of those men.

“I watch whatever clips I can, I’ve read books and tried to get an idea what type of person it takes to do what those Rangers did that morning,” he said. “The common theme is: You’re well-trained, you understand the mission, and with the help of those to your left and your right, you accomplish the mission.”

A retired colonel, Mike Okita now works as a program manager for Engility Corporation, which works with the Department of Defense. As he wrapped up his years in the Army, he and wife Lynn discussed where they’d live.

“We have a daughter in Seattle, and we were married 24 years ago at Fort Lewis,” he said. “We liked DuPont. What I’ve never forgotten is that when you enter the military, it’s a package deal.

“Everyone wants to be involved in the action, but when you go, your wife, your kids, your entire family goes with you. It’s always been that way.”

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com @LarryLaRue

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