June 6, 2014: Seventy years ago today, the greatest fleet ever assembled in history launched the largest amphibious invasion ever undertaken. Over 100,000 American, British, Canadian, French, and other Allied troops stormed ashore on five beaches in Normandy. American and British airborne divisions preceded the landings by a few hours to disrupt the German lines-of-communications.
On some beaches, the invasion plan worked smoothly despite opposition from the defending German. But the American beach called OMAHA became a slaughterhouse. The defending positions were formidable, and German resistance proved almost fanatical. The beach became littered with dead and wounded attackers and destroyed equipment. The filmmakers of Saving Private Ryan vividly captured what these men endured. The situation seemed so dire that General Omar Bradley, the American commander, considered evacuating the beach entirely. Then American leadership, training, initiative, and ingenuity turned the tide.
One on-site commander told his soldiers that there were two types of men on the beach: those who were already dead and those who were going to die. He admonished them “Let’s take that hill and die inland.” Then he rose and led his men from the front. Engineers breached barriers holding up the troops, and the few tanks that made it ashore surged forward. Hundreds of soldiers overcame their terror and braved fierce fire to attack the defenders. They took the high ground, and the crisis was overcome. By nightfall, all the landings were securely established. Although much hard fighting still lay ahead, the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed.
D-Day occurred ten days before my eighth birthday. I still recall President Franklin Roosevelt’s somber radio announcement of the event to the American public and his solemn prayer for the success and safety of our fighting men. As I recall, the mood of the country was grim but determined. The Axis had started this war, and they deserved whatever they were getting. We were damned well going to finish the war with total victory.
Almost every family in the United States had someone directly involved in World War II. Although my father was too old to serve, I had uncles and many cousins in the armed forces. Some served in the Army, others in the Navy. Several served in the Army Air Forces. My close relatives endured combat in North Africa, Italy, Northwest Europe, New Guinea, the China-Burma-India Theater, and in the Pacific. One helped sink Japanese carriers at Midway to turn the tide of war in that region. He was one of the few torpedo plane pilots who made it back to his carrier. He remained on the USS Enterprise for the remainder of the war and fought in almost every major battle in the Pacific. My oldest brother-in-law flew 8th Air Force heavy bombers over Germany. It seemed that everyone studied world geography. Our family experience was typical of the entire country. We were a united nation, focused on the single purpose of victory. As I said in a previous blog post, we would not be so united again until the days immediately following September 11, 2001.
The Normandy landings cost the Allies over 9,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed or wounded. Those of us in succeeding generations owe these men an enormous debt of gratitude. Their sacrifice in lives lost or maimed freed the world of the gruesome specter of Nazi conquest. Western Europe and the Americas remain free today as a result of their efforts.