A friend in suburban New Jersey was disappointed after conducting an informal survey of his household this week. It seems that not one of his four children who attend local public schools had heard a single word about D-Day. Tuesday was the 73rd anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy that began the liberation of Europe. Unfortunately, the experience of his family is hardly unique.
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a full 30% of recent college graduates don’t know that D-Day occurred during World War II. Looking at U.S. history in general, the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2014 found that just 18% of U.S. eighth-graders were graded as “proficient” or above.
While professional educators certainly deserve much of the blame, the journalistic profession could also do better. To its credit, yesterday the Las Vegas Review-Journal published the following letter from reader Donald Anderson:
I am totally dismayed that the Review-Journal failed to mention D-Day in the June 6 edition. If it hadn’t been for the success of the brave forces who stormed the beaches of Normandy on that fateful day in 1944, I’m sure the world situation would be entirely different.
Yes, I saw the eight lines in the Almanac section. Thank you.
Mr. Anderson could just as easily have sent an even stronger complaint to your humble correspondent. Lacking an Almanac section, this column failed entirely to mention the anniversary. Fortunately readers compensated for your correspondent’s oversight by appropriately marking the occasion in the comments section.
As for the news blackout that seems to have occurred in certain schools on Tuesday, the possible silver lining there is that a contemporary progressive educator’s rendering of World War II might leave parents wishing for complete silence on the subject.
In any case, this job seems to have fallen to non-professional educators, and perhaps a good place to start is by encouraging the youngsters in our households to see what they can learn about the two men pictured at the top of this page. They served as combat medics attached to Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during World War II. The group is better known as the ‘Band of Brothers’ of book and television fame.
Speaking of the Army, this week the service tells the story of several D-Day veterans who gathered to share their experiences:
When the ramp to his World War II landing craft slammed down onto Utah Beach, then-Cpl. Herman Zeitchik jumped out and dashed across the sand as deadly rounds were shot out from fortified bunkers.
With the amphibious assault underway in the early morning of June 6, 1944, Zeitchik and other 4th Infantry Division Soldiers — who were part of the first wave of troops to land — desperately tried to find safe passage through the German-occupied beach.
“When the front of these landing crafts went down, we just took off,” said Zeitchik, now 93 years old. “We couldn’t see where to fire. We just had to get off the beach and try to find the rest of the unit.”
Along a 50-mile stretch of coastline in northern France, more than 160,000 Allied troops stormed Utah Beach and four other beaches that day to gain a foothold in continental Europe. By the end of the D-Day invasion, over 9,000 of those Allied troops were either dead or wounded — the majority of them Americans.
Further east from where Mr. Zeitchik came ashore was the furious fighting at Omaha Beach. That’s where then-Pvt. Arnald Gabriel waded ashore in water that was surprisingly cold, even in June. “With the Air Force overhead, the Navy shelling [enemy positions], the enemy firing at you and we’re firing at them, it was just total chaos,” he recalls. The memories would haunt him, according to the Army:
“The way I overcame my post-traumatic stress was to keep so busy that I had no time to look back,” he said before the ceremony.
Shortly after the war, he said, it was a lieutenant that gave him the advice about keeping busy. It came at a time when he was struggling to deal with his thoughts of what happened that fateful day.
“It’s OK to look back, but just don’t stare,” said Gabriel, who retired as an Air Force colonel after serving 36 years.
Students wishing to understand D-Day might also wish to read or view the two remarkable speeches that President Reagan gave on the 40th anniversary in 1984. A few lines in particular from his remarks at the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc can help them begin to understand what it all meant:
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.