D-Day, History, and Memory

History is where you find it.       

Certainly it’s found in books, and on television. But while we still enjoy the company of perhaps 150,000 Americans who served in World War II, they include veterans of June 6, 1944, and the scores of D-Days that preceded and followed the Normandy invasion. We can still appreciate their sacrifice and their service.

For a moment, let’s consider what those veterans meant to America and the world. Let’s ponder what their victory accomplished -- and what it did not.

Operation Neptune (the naval portion) delivered Overlord (the invasion) to five beaches along the Normandy coast: two American, two British, one Canadian. Some 175,000 Allied airborne and ground troops comprised the initial landings, with perhaps 4,400 dead or missing, including 2,500 Americans.

German losses remain uncertain; perhaps 9,000 total casualties.        

French citizens suffered severely from the Germans, from the Allies, and from internecine conflict. Allied bombers and artillery inflicted massive damage: surveying a ruined French city, an American soldier gained anonymous immortality when he said, “We sure liberated the hell out of this place.”

Among the eloquent oratory attending the World War II Memorial and the D-Day anniversary is a frequent refrain: The Greatest Generation preserved America’s freedom. It is, however, a gross overstatement. The plain fact is that neither Germany nor Japan ever had the ability to conquer America.

By June 1944, both Axis powers had lost control of the sea, lacking the ships and manpower to occupy North America. (If Hitler was unable to invade Britain in 1940, how could he possibly occupy America?) In fact, the Axis already was fatally overextended on the Eurasian landmass and in China.

Even today, orators continue overstating the threat to America’s freedom. While our security may be at risk in the war on terror, our freedom is as secure as We the People want it. Not even during the height (or depth) of the Cold War was American freedom at stake. The Soviet Union had the power to destroy us, but never could have enslaved us. Only Americans have the ability to deprive Americans of their freedom.

What, then, was America’s stake on Normandy beaches?        

The question answers itself. At stake was Western Civilization and the freedom of most of Europe. France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway, and other nations awaited liberation. In fact, so did Germany and its European allies: Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Sadly, many of them exchanged one oppressor for another: Nazism for Communism.

A Monumental Undertaking

World War II was a people’s war. More than 15 million of 138 million Americans entered the armed forces. If today’s military represented the same proportions, we would have over 30 million of America’s 331 million people in uniform. Today, there are but 2.1 million in the active, reserve, and National Guard forces.        

The production feat was enormous, easily the greatest in history. Of more than 5,000 ships and landing craft in Operation Neptune, most of the former and all the latter had been built since 1941. But long before D-Day, the Allies had to defeat Hitler’s U-boats, a campaign largely completed by mid-1943. Once the Atlantic pipeline was opened, a flood of men and materiel spanned the sea lanes, bringing the wealth and youth of the New World to the rescue of the Old.

It was a war of logistics. Consequently, it was won at home, in factories and on farms. Among other things, America manufactured 79,000 landing craft; 297,000 airplanes; 2.5 million trucks; 12.8 million rifles; and 190 million pairs of boots and shoes.

Logistics also bore heavily upon manpower, as less than 25 percent of the Allied troops in France belonged to combat units. For every infantryman, tanker, or artilleryman who crossed Omaha and Utah beaches, four or five other GIs backed him up: clerks, cooks, mechanics, truck drivers, doctors and nurses.

So when you think of the World War II vet, don’t allow your mental computer to default to the traditional image. He may have been your father, grandfather, or the neighbor you hardly knew. But give him tribute, gentle reader, whether he wielded a bazooka, a bomber, or a bulldozer.

When you think of the World War II vet, think of the uncle who collected scrap metal or the aunt who learned to use a rivet gun.

When you think of World War II, think of a nation unified in its purpose with steely resolve. It was the kind of singlemindedness that took us from 30,000 feet in the skies of Europe in 1944 to the lunar Sea of Tranquility only 25 years later.

Millions paid the price

It’s astonishing to contemplate. Germany, with a population of 77 million, challenging virtually the rest of Western Civilization. The United States counted 138 million people; Russia around 108 million. Yet it took the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire nearly six years to defeat Nazi Germany.

It’s an inherent fault of democracies, which seldom learn the ancient wisdom of fourth-century military writer Vegetius. Fifteen centuries before D-Day, he wrote: “Who desires peace should prepare for war.” That’s why years of European appeasement and American complacency required a generation of young men to crawl up fire-swept beaches, leaving their blood and the friends of their youth in sandy venues from France to New Guinea to Okinawa.

The Atlantic Wall was an imposing barrier, with Wagnerian bunkers concealing powerful cannon. But it was a porous blockade, often thinly manned. Germany disposed of 850,000 troops in France but only 80,000 in Normandy.

The Allied deception plan worked; Hitler’s strength lay in the Pas de Calais. Against 175,000 Allied troops enjoying uncontested air supremacy, it seems remarkable that the issue was ever in doubt. And yet it was, however briefly. The Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, penned a note for release in event that Overlord failed.

Overlord was coalition warfare writ large -- writ huge, in fact. Five Allied nations were involved at sea or ashore: America, Britain, Canada, Free France, and Poland in exile. It set a standard for what followed on larger scales in Korea, Southeast Asia, and the wastes of Mesopotamia.

In the unlikely event that Overlord failed, the Allies had an ace up their sleeve. Operation Anvil-Dragoon landed in southern France two months later, making the Riviera the most glamorous arena of the war.

However, the larger picture involved the Soviet Union. Had the western allies failed to gain traction in France, eventually Josef Stalin’s tankers would have parked their T-34s at Calais. The entire postwar history of Europe would have been vastly different.

Meanwhile, there are eleven U.S. government cemeteries in France. They contain the graves of some 60,000 Americans who died liberating that country, roughly 30,000 each in both world wars.

Somehow, the Great War -- the one that was to end all wars -- escaped the same degree of memorialization. There is little tribute to the 116,000 Americans who died in uniform in 1917-18; the Kansas City World War I memorial opened in 2006, five years before the last doughboy died.

While most French citizens were grateful for liberation, their governments then and since remain truculent. Perhaps it’s Gallic resentment of essential American aid in two world wars, combined with a cultural invasion expressed in Levi’s and McDonald’s. If so, surely America’s huge debt to France in the Revolution has been paid with interest.

Let a retired airline pilot describe the situation: “On the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, I was flying a 757 from JFK to Paris. After the usual post-landing customs dance, we met the wizened little Frenchman with the large white moustache who drove our crew bus to town. He had decorated his dashboard with a little display of crossed American and French flags, and he greeted us with repeated, ‘Sank you, Americans! Sank you!’”

Despite the political rhetoric, America did not free itself on Utah or Omaha Beach. America did something grander: It freed a continent of enslaved peoples. And for that, Mon vieu, most U.S. veterans would reply, “You’re welcome.”

Barrett Tillman is a military historian with more fifty books and 800 articles published worldwide, including The D-Day Encyclopedia (2004 and 2014.)

Image: Public Domain

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