Trustees | General Education

D-Day: When all modern history pivots

Our View: To understand the freedoms and joys we enjoy today, study the tombstones of Normandy.
ARIZONA REPUBLIC   |  June 5, 2014 by Editorial

Dec. 7, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy.

June 6, 1944, is the day upon which all modern history pivots.

On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, in a week when so much of the news has been focused on a single soldier who walked away from his post, it is better to remember the incredible courage and devotion to duty of the 160,000 men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France.

Until that day, the Germans were winning World War II. Their armies had expanded across Europe. The Allies’ last remaining foothold was in England, which had withstood aerial attack early in the war.

The only hope was to strike across the English Channel. All the world knew this. The German Army knew an invasion would come, if not the date or location. They were dug in.

So much could have gone wrong. The weather. Mechanical breakdowns. A failure of courage. Every man on those transport ships knew what he was being asked to do, knew that bullets and mortar shells would greet them before the first landing craft hit the shore. They knew that June 6 could be their last day.

Yet none shirked. More than 9,000 died or were wounded. Even when they had to step over or around the bodies of their fallen comrades, even as they watched men fall, the D-Day troops kept pouring onto the five beaches stretching over 50 miles.

Because they also knew that if just one unit fell short, the rest of the plan could fail. And today, we might all be speaking German.

They did not fail. The British, American and Canadian forces took Normandy, and from there quickly moved toward Berlin. Hitler’s days were numbered.

Every year, there are fewer and fewer eyewitnesses to that day. Every year, Americans forget a little more. In a recent survey conducted for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, one-fourth of respondents couldn’t identify the war in which D-Day took part. One in seven thought D-Day bloodied the beaches of Hawaii.

The poll, however, did not ask the most important question: Can you explain the significance of June 6, 1944?

More than details of date and place, that is what matters.

Alllied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower called D-Day an operation in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.”

Anything less would have been disastrous. The Allies would have been left clinging to the British Isles while German forces grew stronger. The war might not have turned out well. The world could have been a much different place.

Today, Normandy is peaceful. The green fields lined with white tombstones stand silent witness to bravery, to duty, to prevailing against overwhelming odds. On those tombstones stands Western civilization as we know and enjoy it today.

But 70 years ago, Normandy was a place of unspeakable horror. We may be able to comprehend it through the art of such directors as Stephen Spielberg in “Saving Private Ryan,” but only those who were there truly know what it was like.

“It was a killing field,” Harry Billinge, an 88-year-old British veteran, told the BBC. “I hope they will not forget the poor devils that died here.”

Today, on the 70th anniversary, let us remember that we are in their debt.


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