Just a few hours ago President Obama and French President Francois Hollande stood with 380 WWII veterans at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Behind them 9,387 white marble tombstones stand on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the site of the day’s bloodiest battle.
I have had the honor and the privilege of walking that hallowed ground. I can say without reservation that it was the most humbling experience of my life. This place stands in tribute not only to the brave men who selflessly gave their lives that day to liberate people that they didn’t know. It stands in silent testimony to who we are as a nation.
Much has been written about the invasion itself… the 200,000 allied soldiers who stormed the beaches…the 5,000 warships and landing craft…the 1,000 aircraft. It was the largest and most complicated military operation in recorded history; its success dependent upon secrecy, the whims of Mother Nature and the courage of mere boys. So much at stake! So much could go wrong! With the seas and weather less than optimal, Eisenhower feared the worst. Right before the invasion he penned a press release assuming full responsibility for its failure, and placed it in his wallet.
Six hours into the invasion the allied commanders expected to have advanced one mile inland. Six hours into the invasion they had barely secured ten yards of beach front. What came next is a testament to American perseverance and ingenuity.
Eisenhower famously said that he had given his men a plan to get ON the beach. It was up to them to figure out how to get OFF. And that they did. With the roar of gunfire and explosions so deafening they could not hear the man speaking next to them…they devised a way to scale the sheer 100 foot cliffs that guarded the mainland. One German vet who was there that day as a young boy soldier said: “As they came up the cliffs we were firing right down on them. They took heavy losses. But they kept coming…wave after wave. We’d kill them and more would come. I was frightened because I knew they were coming after me. They were so brave.”
Once the high ground was secured and the allies began to advance inland their progress was halted once again…by hedgerows…high, thick, unexpected and full of retreating German soldiers. Frightened, exhausted, perhaps wounded…the air filled with acrid smoke and the deafening roar of gunfire…the GI’s kept their wits about them…engineered cutting tools to knock down the hedgerows and forged them onto the front of their tanks. The allies pushed on. Ten months later the war was over.
The stories from the home front are just as remarkable as the invasion itself.
In 1939 the US Army of 190,000 soldiers was ranked 18th in the world…right behind Romania. By 1944 that number had swelled to 8,400,000. When the war ended 16,000,000 million Americans were serving in the armed forces. Civilians served in their own way…working in munitions factories, distribution centers, and food processing facilities; doing whatever they could to assist the war effort. All dedicated to preserving our society and liberating an entire continent of people that they’d never met.
When the war was over they came home. They didn’t hang on to the land they’d liberated as conquerors are apt to do. They returned the land to its people. They went home, went to college on the GI bill, raised their families and built the greatest middle class that the world has ever seen.
When I was boy my next door neighbor was a WWII vet. He landed on Omaha Beach. Shortly after he waded ashore he was shot through the shoulder. He shoved some packing material into his wound and kept on fighting. He was shot again…this time in the leg. He kept on fighting. He scaled the cliffs and kept on fighting. He made it home safe. Worked at a local brewery and raised six children. He never spoke of the war or the tremendous courage he displayed that day. I learned of his exploits from his brother…who fought at his side.
There are only about 1,000,000 WWII vets left among us. We are losing them at a rate of 600 a day. As president Obama said: "It is up to us to tell their story." It is up to us to keep their memory alive. A well we should. For D-Day is not just a story of patriotism and the bravery of men in battle. It is a story of sacrifice, and perseverance, community and ingenuity…traits that we should forever embrace as individuals and as a nation.
And if we learn nothing else from the events of June 6, 1944 let us learn that even in victory the use of military force carries with it an exacting toll; one that should only be accepted as a measure of last resort.