June 6, 1944, was one of the most important days in the 20th Century. No kidding. Last Saturday was the 76th anniversary of that day. It was overshadowed by trauma, drama, protests and riots, virus anxiety, and racial tension as if the day were hardly worth remembering. It is worth remembering.
If you were 18 in 1944, landing on the beaches of Normandy – you are 94 today, 76 years later. We have less than 300,000 World War II veterans among us, from an original 16 million.
Of that two percent, perhaps a thousand were at Normandy – on the day America and Allies commenced to save the world with the largest maritime assault ever, straight into the teeth of the Axis powers’ war machine.
On that day, 156,000 Allied boys hit five beachheads – fortified against assault by interlocking Nazi artillery and machine-gun fields of fire. German defenders had the advantage of hundred-foot cliffs, cement pillboxes, physical defenses extending for miles inland.
Roughly 73,000 of those who landed at Normandy were Americans. They took the most heavily fortified beaches, Utah to the west, Omaha to the east, cliffs of La Pointe du Hoc.
Forty years after that day, President Ronald Reagan went to Normandy. Standing over the cliffs, he honored the “Boys of Pointe du Hoc,” pledging we would never forget what they – and those buried under crosses nearby – did that day. His speech was short, solemn, but is epic.
Searing facts mark the day. On Utah beach alone, more than 2,000 Americans died. In total, 4,000 Allied troops died. Hundreds went missing, were wounded. In the American Cemetery at Normandy lie 9,388 Americans, including paratroopers who paved the way.
On a chilly day in 1983, I quietly walked the now-barren beaches, looked out at half-sunken remains of the artificial harbor, tried to grasp the significance and enormity of it all. I was just out of college, older than most who died on the beaches. All I could do was try to imagine, say prayers, and struggle to grasp the enormity of what they did.
The memory of that walk, struggling to grasp the place, effort, fear, courage, loss, perseverance, impossible task, faith that it could be done, resolve that it must be done – the will to win, the willingness to die … for all of us, is what even now I summon to remind me to be grateful.
D-Day was just the start of sacrifice. By July 1944, Allied casualties exceeded 60,000. They liberated Paris on August 23. By war’s end, more than 405,000 Americans were dead. The cost of freedom – to the men killed and wounded, the grieving families, the lost futures which never happened, is hard to wrap one’s head around. Still, we are obligated to try. That is the debt we owe.
Finally, on this day, it is worth recalling the whole idea was daring. The D-Day invasion was the height of risk-taking for freedom, a perilous gamble – one Hitler, Rommel, and the Nazi war machine thought the Allies could not win. They thought differently.
Preparation was years, coordination incalculably hard, leadership key – involving George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, George Patton, and hundreds of others. By January 1944, the assault was “Operation Overlord.” To make it work, the cross-channel crossing had to be a surprise; thus, mass deceptions made the Germans suspect Pas de Calais, closest to Britain – and spots like Norway. Strategists, tacticians, intelligence officers, technology mavens, aviators, and agitators created foils and frauds, feints within feints.
On June 5, 1944, planned assault day, weather was impossible. Eisenhower gave the “go” for June 6. Men on 5000 ships heard his words: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months …The eyes of the world are upon you.”
The Hand of Providence was too. They might have been driven back into the sea – but were not. Within a week, the beaches held 326,000 troops, 50,000 vehicles, and 100,000 tons of equipment.
The point is that D-Day is memorable. It is memorable for more reasons than a column can capture, but reasons that should cause us all to stop, think, remember, wonder, and appreciate.
It is memorable for reasons that should resonate, even now – forcing us to remember again that we are one nation, all blessed to be free. Whatever dogs us, frustrates us, angers us, divides us, distracts us – cannot overwhelm what binds us. To be clear, those men and women who lie beneath those crosses at Normandy – have levied a burden upon us. We must give our level best every day to one another and the future – because that is what they gave for us. No kidding.