By Craig Hastings
There has been much in the news these past few days leading up to the 75th anniversary of the Allied Forces invasion of Normandy, France, D-Day, Operation Overlord, The Longest Day, take your pick for all are appropriate. Hitler’s Nazi Germany had invaded and now occupied France. On June 6, 1944 the Allied Forces including the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Poland, and Czechoslovakia would coordinate in an effort code named “Operation Overlord” in an attempt to reclaim the Nazi occupied territories of France and other parts of Europe. If successful Hitler would surely fall. This would be remembered in history as the largest amphibious invasion ever coordinated in times of war. Nearly 150,000 Allied troops would participate in the grand strategic plan that would change the world order forever.
If you were awake for even a few moments in your history class you know the outcome of this single day and how it affected the outcome of World War II. Over my 62 years I’ve watched more television documentaries and movies about “D-Day” than I can remember. Most of these I have seen five and six times. As I grew older the significance of June 6, 1944 and how it related to the many war movies I was watching began to change. The many movie depictions were exciting. Lots of drama, fast planes, incredible bombardments by Navy ships, and what looked more like a million men storming the beaches of Normandy. But in my mind for years the movies were just movies, and I wasn’t relating to the fact that this really happened. This stuff wasn’t made up for audience entertainment. No, this script had already been written and recorded in history before any movie producer took it upon himself to turn the events of June 6, 1944 into movie history.
Many movies made at that time and after were based on actual military events. I’m not upset with the fact that so much death and destruction was later used for profit. It’s a sad fact that most of us would not have ever known the full story of what took place had war not been made into movies. This week though many of the media giants have delved deep into what is really most important about “Operation Overlord.” That being the sacrifices made by human beings on both sides of this god forsaken event in our history. I have paid a lot of attention to what has been told to us this week by the history experts in the know about this event and many other war events that mattered. But more importantly I have listened intently to the many veterans that still survive this war who are now in their 90’s and at least one man even 100 years old!
All of these members of America’s Greatest Generation remember and tell us who the real heroes of June 6, 1944 are…not were, but still are. All of them argue they were not the heroes on this day or any of the days that followed. These humble men tell us their fallen brethren, those who died, are the real heroes, on the 6th of June and forever after. Those who gave their lives are now and for all eternity the heroes who carried the day in the eyes of those that survived. If you watched any of these interviews of these great war veterans and you didn’t tear up just a little then you have no sense of emotion. I’m not usually the one that cries at movies, funerals, or even events of happiness such as weddings and noted accomplishments. (Well, Paul W. and I both admit to crying a bit when we watched the movie “Toy Story” our first time!) But when I watch a 93-year-old veteran paratrooper jump from a plane over Normandy just as he did 75 years ago, land safely, and tear up as he recalls how scared he was when just a 19-year-old boy; my eye lids fluttered, cold chills ran up and down my body, and tears of my own began to flow.
This is one of many interviews that choked me up over the week. Gen. Eisenhower’s granddaughter recounted her grandfather’s struggle making the call that would certainly send thousands of young men to their death on the heavily fortified beaches of Normandy. We witnessed actual film footage of hundreds of American soldiers being cut down by large caliber German machine guns tucked away in concrete pillbox fortifications. As I sat and watched these landing craft full of Americans and other members of the Allied Forces drop their forward doors, soldiers packed in shoulder to shoulder, and directly into the line of fire of the German machine gun armaments, I screamed in my mind: “Are you kidding me, wasn’t there a better way?!”
If there was a better way in 1944, I’m confident those making these command decisions would have found it. I know nothing about these landing craft, but why didn’t these craft land with the drop door 180 degrees of what it did? Drop the door facing the water, not the sand? At least the men could have spread out, maybe? Was the water too deep? I don’t know, and I’m not trying to armchair quarterback the how and why. It was my first reaction to the slaughter of so many men who never even made it out of the water! The best count I can research is 4,414 died that day and under the circumstances I think this is incredibly low. However, I also believe one death was too many. If you think about the 4,414 men that died, had they not been killed, how many would have flourished and had families of their own? And over the next 75 years how would their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and then their families have impacted the history of America? Possibly even had affected you or me?
I’m additionally emotional about this event because my own two sons are nearing the age of many of those who sacrificed their lives 75 years ago. If one or both of my sons had died in the manner so many of these young Americans have done I’m not sure how patriotic I may have remained. There probably wasn’t a better means to the end, but I feel some strategic decisions were made based on acceptable casualties numbers and not possible casualties. I think there is a huge gap between acceptable and possible when talking about human lives. I know nothing about war game strategy, but I’m critical because it sickens me to watch, in actual film footage, so many young men (boys) fall into the water and die taking no more than two or three steps from their landing craft and; it was an expected consequence of the battle plan! Just as the German Command expected that everyone of their own soldiers occupying their machine gun bunkers would also die before the day was over! Everyone on both sides were just following the day’s orders given to them.
Would American Military Command propose such a plan today that “accepted” a given number of soldiers would die before moving even 10 feet from the vehicle from which they arrived? I pray not. Please join me in prayer for those who died and survived the events on and post June 6, 1944. All of these men and women are American heroes. Let’s also not forget all of those Americans who sacrificed in the many conflicts around the world after “Operation Overlord.” Absent the men and women we know and remember as our “Veterans” there is no free America.