June 6, 1944: Defining Moment for the “WWII Generation”

blogpic_billRecently, I watched a few grainy film clips from the Allied assault on the Normandy beaches that took place on June 6, 1944—an even 70 years ago this year.  It all looked familiar, but I learn something new every time I see D-Day stories. Sometimes the facts are startling.

Most of us know D-Day was an important battle, but I think we often fail to realize the enormous scope and lasting impact of this historic event.  The simple facts of D-Day transform it from a military victory into a major, modern miracle—one that happened against all odds.

It’s worth remembering those facts.

Consider that 2,499 American servicemen were killed in action (KIA) that day—in a matter of hours.  That’s slightly more than the number of American KIA after ten years in Afghanistan (2,324), against a far different adversary.  Perhaps that’s not surprising considering that the German army was the most modern fighting force in the world at the time, and possessed weaponry equal to—and often better than—our own.

Another exacerbating factor in the number of KIA on D-Day was that the assault was against a set of concrete fortifications prepared over several years under the oversight of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, considered one of the great generals of modern times.  An honorable man, Rommel was later executed by the Nazis for his role in a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

However, Rommel had done his defensive duty, and the massive fortifications withstood a withering barrage from the largest naval flotilla ever assembled. They emerged intact and still bristling with men, machine guns and more—bloodied but intent on victory.

After years of guessing, every enemy soldier now knew exactly where the invasion force was landing.  The course of civilization lay in the balance.  Hitler’s goal was clear: world domination. His methods were equally clear—and grotesquely inhuman—including genocide on an industrial scale.

The kill zone began hundreds of yards from shore as the big enemy guns zeroed in on the landing craft.  Those who survived that accurate barrage came under a rain of machine gun fire as their landing craft ramps were lowered.  Still, our GIs waded ashore by the tens of thousands.  German machine gunners would later complain that they simply could not mow the Americans down fast enough.

normandy

Those who made it across the heavily mined and barb-wired beach then had to dig the fanatical defenders out of concrete “pill boxes.”  Others had to climb the sheer cliffs of Pont du Hoc directly into the fire of enemy defenders at the top.  Victory was never a sure bet, and in fact, General Eisenhower prepared both a letter announcing a victory and one explaining defeat, both of which he kept in the pocket of his uniform.

However, by day’s end, the beachhead was established.  Ironically, D-Day wasn’t the end of the war but merely a staging area to begin the long, bloody slog to take down Hitler’s Fortress Europe.  However, victory on D-Day was the proverbial stake through the monster’s heart.  The vaunted Third Reich was in its death throes.

That victory belonged to more than the men who stormed the beaches or parachuted behind enemy lines.  It belonged to every father, mother, sibling, sweetheart and factory worker who stood behind those men. It belonged to the entire World War II generation—the same ones whom you now call residents in your senior living community.   It was never more true that “all gave some and some gave all.”

One might think that these selfless heroes would disdain today’s emphasis on affluence, comfort and freedom of choice.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  I think that they see the harvest of that horrible day in the prosperity that lies all around them.  They offered their lives to ensure that a free people remained free.  They died to keep alive human hope, innovation and creativity, despite the best efforts of two fascist empires.  Their victory still resounds in the happy lives of untold millions.

Yes, time has now robbed them of the strength and vitality they once had. But the bold dignity that stared down a dictator still blazes from their eyes.  Only those of their generation really understand the depth of that challenge. Now their legacy is ours to protect and nurture until the day that the last one departs from this life.  Most have already left us and the remaining ones will leave in the same way they did everything else in their lives—gracefully and without complaint.

But they should never leave us unanswered for their sacrifice.

This June 6—or any day moving forward—reach out and call or visit one of the WWII generation.  Take their hand and tell them that you understand what they did for all of us.  If your voice cracks or breaks, just let the awkward silence send an eloquent message of thanks.  Trust me, they’ll understand.

For a fascinating context on D-Day, watch this YouTube video called Surviving D-Day Omaha Beach 1944

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