Shutdown keeps Chattanoogans out of D-Day cemetery in France

Shutdown keeps Chattanoogans out of D-Day cemetery in France

October 5th, 2013 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

U.S. and French flags are displayed on the graves of the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, near Caen, Western France.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Homer Kemp hoped to cross an item off his "bucket list." He planned to stand amidst the 9,387 headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha Beach and contemplate the sacrifice made by the buried American soldiers there who died in World War II.

"People have told me that it gives you a real profound experience standing there," Kemp said. "Almost a spiritual kind of thing."

But the cemetery was closed when Kemp, 72, his wife, Mary Tanner, and their friends, George and Martha Elder, all from the Chattanooga area, tried to visit on Thursday. Its gates were chained shut, and a sign said the shutdown was to blame.

"We were denied that by [Texas U.S. Sen. Ted] Cruz and his cohorts," Kemp, a semi-retired Tennessee Tech University English professor, said via a cellphone call from Paris. "You can guess what I think about Cruz and this whole fiasco."

Tanner, retired interim provost for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is the mother of Times Free Press Assistant Sports Editor Jim Tanner. Kemp is Tanner's stepfather.

The government shutdown entered its fourth day Friday and showed no signs of abating, according to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who happened to be in the lobby of the Stone Fort Inn, a downtown hotel and dining spot, as a reporter walked by at lunchtime.

"I don't see this ending anytime in the next few days," the Chattanooga Republican said. He anticipates negotiations over the budget will be combined with talks to raise the $16.7 trillion national debt ceiling, which has an Oct. 17 deadline.

"We should pivot to focus on our deficits and spending reforms to strengthen our country," he said.

A few blocks away, about 10 people opposed to the shutdown assembled at the corner of M.L. King Boulevard and Georgia Avenue in front of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

"The response is 97 percent for us, and three middle fingers against us," said Franklin McCallie, 73, who held a sign that said "Tell T Party Send America Back 2 Work."

McCallie and his cousin Eleanor Cooper, who held an American flag, decided to organize the impromptu lunchtime protest Thursday morning when they met for coffee at Niedlov's Breadworks. The cousins are descendants of the founders of McCallie School and Girls Preparatory School, two prestigious private schools in Chattanooga.

"We decided we couldn't sit back while our fellow Americans were being thrown out of work by the tea party," McCallie said. "I've gone to tea party rallies to hear what they had to say. They say they're patriots. Closing down government, that isn't patriotic."

The lunchtime shutdown protests may continue, he said.

"I bet we could do it once a week," McCallie said.

Advocates of the federal shutdown remain adamant in their support.

Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West has called the shutdown "a good thing and ... a noble effort."

Kemp, his wife and the Elders expect to return Sunday from their week-long visit to France.

The cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, a site of fierce D-Day fighting, is one of 24 U.S. military cemeteries overseas that have closed to visitors. Ten more cemeteries in France, as well as others in various European countries as well as Mexico, Panama, Tunisia and the Philippines, will remain closed for the duration of the shutdown.

The cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, set up after World War I. Nearly 125,000 U.S. servicemen and -women are buried at its cemeteries, and an additional 94,000 are commemorated on tablets of the missing.

"I don't think some of the people that forced this shutdown realized the extent of the concentric circles that go out," Kemp said. "I don't think they thought it through. They just wanted to make the point."

He said he may write to Cruz, who conducted a 21-hour protest against the federal Affordable Care Act last week on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

"I'm thinking about writing him he owes me a trip to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach," Kemp said.

Locally, the federal shutdown hasn't affected the Civil War-era Chattanooga National Cemetery, which is still open to visitors and is holding burials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.