Sixty-nine years ago this week, nearly 160,000 troops of the invading Allied forces crossed the English Channel to take France—and, ultimately, Europe—back from Nazi Germany.
The date was June 6, 1944, or “D-Day.” It was the initial assault of a two and half month operation to help the Allies secure northern Europe. It was also a deciding factor in the outcome of the war with Nazi Germany.
By the end of the day, the Allies had gained a foothold in Normandy that allowed more than 100,000 Allied troops to secure the beachheads, unload their supplies, and begin a march across Europe that led to Hitler’s defeat.
The success was costly: Approximately 12,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in the initial assault on June 6, codenamed “Operation Neptune.” Total Allied casualties throughout the Allied invasion of northwest Europe, widely known as the Battle of Normandy and codenamed “Operation Overlord,” totaled 226,386 from June 6 through August 21, 1944. Of those, U.S. Army casualties totaled 20,838 killed, 94,881 wounded, and 10,128 missing for a total of 125,847 casualties, in addition to 16,714 Allied airmen killed or missing over the course of the battle. But not one man fighting in the invasion expected for it to be safe; They expected for it to be epic.
Just prior to the D-Day invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the fighting forces a message which can be heard this very day on the U.S. Army web site. “You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months…In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
The General who would become President in less than 10 years did not candy coat the experience, hinting at large casualties. “Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely,” said Eisenhower. But he also did not hesitate to remind the Allied forces that failure was not an option.
“We will accept nothing less than full victory!” Eisenhower exclaimed.
Succeed they did. In what would be the biggest amphibious invasion ever recorded at the time, incredibly successful Allied intelligence and counterintelligence work, and skilled Allied air operations that rendered the Nazi Luftwaffe air forces ineffective in Normandy, the invasion paved the way for more than three million Allied troops to infiltrate France by the end of August 1944.
It is hard to grasp the implications of what life would have been like over the past 70 years had Nazism not been routed out by the work of the U.S. and its Western Allies (the United Kingdom, Canada, Free French Forces, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Free Belgian Forces, Greece, and Luxembourg). During the 2012 anniversary of D-Day, Under Secretary of the Army Joseph W. Westphal said today’s Americans need to recognize “that the freedoms they enjoy today are a result of the sacrifice of millions of people from all over the world that ensured their liberty… No greater act of bravery was ever carried out than that of millions of citizen soldiers, and civilians, who faced and defeated tyranny and rebuilt this country and the world.”
And it would serve us well today to remember that today’s U.S. military hold that same spirit of sacrifice and bravery for their nation. That fact was not overlooked during the 2012 D-Day celebrations by WW II U.S. Army veteran Earnest F. Gloyna, who served as part of the 820th Aviation Engineer unit and participated in six military campaigns in the European theater, from Omaha Beach in Normandy to Germany.
Gloyna said that soldiers today “have very different equipment but their spirit is the same.” Gloyna went on to say that today’s American soldiers are as prepared as they were in WWII.
Once a soldier is trained, Gloyna said, “…it is a matter of doing the best you can—and the American soldier is probably better at that than anybody else.”
The closest most Americans today will get to the brutality of war is through what we witness on TV, read in the newspapers, or experience as history edited by the motion picture industry. But these short glimpses into war can, sometimes, bring us closer to the real thing than we realize, or really want to go.
An article in the New York Daily News in June 2012 said the depiction of D-Day fighting on Omaha Beach in the opening scene of the Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan” was so realistic that many survivors of the actual battle were jarred by the images they saw. In reality, thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded by German artillery while still on the beach. It was a bloody, horrific event that these young men faced for America’s future.
That future is now. I thank our veterans for making it possible, and ask that each of us show reverence for their embarking on, as then-General Eisenhower called D-Day, “…this great and noble undertaking.”
Have a good week ahead.