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Posted on Jun 1, 2009 in Carlo D'Este, War College

D-Day, Sixty Five Years Later

By Carlo D'Este

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Courtesy of American Battlefield Monuments Commission.

No one has defined the meaning of D-Day any better than Pres. Ronald Reagan in his speech at the Pointe du Hoc.

Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your "lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”

– President Ronald Reagan, June 6, 1984 speech at the Pointe du Hoc U.S. Army Ranger Monument                

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June 6, 2009 will mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, when the eyes of the world were focused on a fifty-mile stretch of beach along the Normandy coast. The men and women of that great generation are rapidly passing on at a rate estimated to be somewhere around 1,000 to 1,200 per day. In the not too distant future the day will come when all but a handful remain to remind us of their sacrifice.

That historic day was important for a great many reasons: militarily it signaled an important new phase of the war – a long-awaited return to the continent that been under Nazi domination and control since 1940 when Hitler’s jackbooted armies overran and occupied Western Europe. However for the occupied that had suffered grievously for over four years D-Day meant that liberation was at hand. It is hard for those of us who live in freedom here in the United States to imagine just what the news of the Allied landings really meant. We take our freedom pretty much for granted as a constitutional right. Too often we complain endlessly about the inconsequential and the trivial. It took 9/11 to awaken us to the fact that the world we live in more than a half-century after the most devastating conflict in the history of mankind is still a very dangerous place.

Another Memorial Day has come and gone and I wonder how many of us really understand that it is not just another three-day weekend and that we are once again engaging the men and women of our armed forces in deadly conflicts that, although far different from that of World War II, still places the United States in peril.

The people of the occupied nations of 1944 would have a difficult time I suspect in relating to our daily complaints. No one can really understand what freedom really means until it is taken away by those who would do us harm. As historian John Keegan has forcefully reminded us in his monumental history of that conflict: “The Second World War was the largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all of its oceans. It killed fifty million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilization.”

No one has defined the meaning of D-Day any better than Pres. Ronald Reagan in his speech at the Pointe du Hoc on occasion of the fortieth anniversary on June 6, 1984. “We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty,” he said. “For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.”

* * *

D-Day was not just an American event. The men of Rudder’s Rangers, the Big Red One, the 4th and 29th Divisions and the thousands in supporting roles were all part of the greatest military force ever assembled for an amphibious invasion. Americans, British, Canadians, Free Polish, Free French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers, sailors and airmen made Normandy succeed in an unprecedented international venture.

As Reagan reminded us:

There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s "Matchbox Fleet” and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge–and pray God we have not lost it–that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They thought–or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4 a.m., in Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying, and in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-Day: their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do. Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

Words to remember and to live by in an age when we are flooded with too much trivia via talk radio, television, the Internet – and now even on our iPods and cell phones. We get so wrapped up in our dally lives and in modern technology that more important issues tend to take a backseat. History, unfortunately, tends to fall into that category.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw has dubbed the men and women of World War II “the greatest generation,” for their quiet heroism and exceptional patriotism. Others have rejected the designation as a slight to other generations that have fought other wars with equal honor. Those who served do not think of themselves in such terms. Jack Murphy, an American veteran who returned to Normandy in 2003, may well have spoken for all veterans of every nation that fought there when he said: “They call us the ‘greatest generation.’ I don’t know . . . We were just a bunch of guys.”

In June 2009 the attention of the world, however briefly, will once again be focused on Normandy. It will be an occasion to re-affirm that the sacrifice of those who fought the battles and campaigns of the most devastating war in history will never go unremembered.

On June 6, take just a moment out of your busy day to reflect on the sacrifice of those “bunch of guys” who did the impossible sixty-five years ago. It was that common purpose: the spirit and grit shown on D-Day that has permitted democracies to survive. This is what we celebrate on June 6, 2009.

2 Comments

  1. “They call us the ‘greatest generation.’ I don’t know . . . We were just a bunch of guys.” That pretty much covers it. It is what also makes them the greatest generation.

  2. President Reagan’s awesome speech is an address to posterity.

    Thanks for reminding us of this man, who would never apologize to the world for America’s greatness and for the unparalleled sacrifies of the country’s “greatest generation.”

    Tez Reyes

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  1. MAP OF THE MONTH: D-Day and Battles for Normandy » Armchair General - [...] D-Day: Sixty-five Years Later Historian Carlo D’Este reflects on the Normandy invasion and what it meant to freedom. [...]

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