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Death, Duty, D-Day

Friday, June 6, 2014

Seventy years ago, our nation led the Western World to a costly victory over tyranny in what was the greatest military undertaking in history.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home will stand a tip-toe when this day is named… Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, but he'll remember with advantages what feats he did that day." — Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, scene III.

Yes, I like to think that, in their souls at least, they do stand a tip-toe, those old men who look back 70 years from this day to one of the truly epic moments in mankind’s journey through the ages — the onset of Operation Overlord.

They are, most of them, in their 90s now — part of that dwindling cadre of about a million surviving veterans of the 16 million Americans who served under arms in World War II. With a grim actuarial precision they are dying at a rate of about 550 each day.

On the 6th of June, 1944 they took part in what — for its comprehensive employment of air, sea, and land forces — was the greatest military undertaking in history, the landings on the French coast at Normandy to begin the assault on Hitler Germany’s “Fortress Europe.”

In the holds of cargo ships and the turrets of cruisers, in the cockpits of fighters and bombers, in black air beneath parachutes, chest-high in bullet-plashed seawater thickened with men’s blood and guts and vomit, they “did their part.” Farm boys and lawyers and kids barely out of high school; soda jerks and shoe repairmen and auto mechanics and school teachers; doctors and grocers and accountants and bus drivers; they landed feet-first in hedgerows and pigpens and swamps; they waded and stumbled and crawled ashore in the night and early dawn to begin the epic breaching of the Atlantic Wall.

If you know one of them, thank them, while there’s still time.

In an astounding feat, 156,000 Allied troops, 73,000 of them American (most of the rest were British and Canadian), were landed on the five Normandy beaches that day. They would never forget the bewildering chaos of blood and fire and concussion. And the noise. The screams of the wounded and dying; the roar of motors; the mortar rounds, the mines, the artillery, and the distinctive, almost buzz-saw rapidity of the German machine-gun fire that swept the beaches and cliffs.

It was a day of death. We may never know for certain how many men died at Normandy that single day. Careful research in recent years has uncovered a total of 4,413 Allied deaths, 2,499 of them Americans. Often forgotten now is the fact that, in the two months prior to D-Day, air operations to “soften up” the elaborately layered German defenses cost the Allies 12,000 airmen and 2,000 planes.

But it was also a day of duty. That duty devolved for the most part upon ordinary soldiers and sailors, who, acting out of fear, anger, desperation, and that strange “naked courage” of the moment, finally broke off the beaches and blasted their way through the formidable German fortifications.

The first news flash of the invasion reached New York at 3:32 that fateful Tuesday morning. A radio broadcast from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in England. “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the coast of France.”

In the holds of cargo ships and the turrets of cruisers, in the cockpits of fighters and bombers, in black air beneath parachutes, chest-high in bullet-plashed seawater thickened with men’s blood and guts and vomit, they ‘did their part.’

The broadcast was heard on public address systems by night-shift workers, who paused by their machines and work tables in war factories all across the nation. Thousands paused to bow their heads in prayer. My mother recalled workers in her plant near Latrobe, Pennsylvania, praying the Lord’s Prayer in unison. At 10 o’clock that morning, in a broadcast from the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked all Americans to join him in a prayer he had written. It began:

“Almighty God — Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set out upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity.”

All day long Americans stayed near their radios or waited for special editions of their local papers. Even as the nation had absorbed the terrible war news from the Pacific theater and the daily casualties from the Italian campaign and the long-range bombing of Germany, it had been keyed up in anticipation of the invasion of France. As Kenneth S. Davis wrote in his fine book Experience of War, “All America breathed sighs of relief… and rejoiced.”

I have a fair number of memories from World War II, even though I was a very young child. One was of the newspaper pages my grandmother would pin on the door or walls of the kitchen in our house in Rector, Pennsylvania. One has stayed in my memory because it remained up for a long time — I think, through the end of the war in 1945. I could not read it then but it fascinated me because the entire top of the page was huge block letters printed in red ink.

It was a special late edition of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph of June 6, 1944. I would find it, crumbling and yellow, in a dresser drawer some years later. The huge red letters spelled “INVASION” across the top of the page and below in large black letters, “OUR TROOPS LAND IN NORTH FRANCE.” For my grandmother, whose son was a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany, it was an act of relief and hope to pin that newspaper on the wall above her radio in the kitchen. And by June of the following year, her son would be home.

Seventy years ago, as a nation we fought and we worked and we prayed and we led the Western World to a costly victory over tyranny. The campaign across Europe from June 6 until Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945 would cost the Allies 200,000 dead, more than half of them Americans. And like their comrades who fought in the Pacific, the old men who were the young men of D-Day led the way. God bless them. If you know one of them, thank them, while there’s still time. In their memories, in their hearts, indeed they should stand a tip-toe when this day is named.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a contributing writer to THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Ralph Kinney Bennett also writes “What a Father Taught Me” and “Fallen Heroes, Never Forgotten.” Amy Kass and Leon Kass contribute “AEI Classics: The Meaning of Veteran’s Day.” Yuval Levin considers “Conservatism and Gratitude.” 


Image by Meg Bosse / Bergman Group


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