This Friday will be the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe, remembered as "D-Day". General Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded 160,000 troops; the majority came from the United States, England, and Canada. But, these were not the only countries that made up the large force of soldiers. Troops from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland also were under Eisenhower's command.
Since Germany first invaded France in May 1940, Hitler had directed that defensive fortification be constructed along the French coastline known as the Atlantic Wall. The allies considered several sites along the front to invade the continent. In the end, it was decided the best way for a large force to enter Europe would be on the Normandy coast at five landing points. Hitler believed the Atlantic Wall would be undefeatable by any army that chose to invade.
With all Germany's preparation the allied invasion was launched June 6, 1944. By the first day's end, the allies had proven that any fixed fortification built by man can be defeated. But, the price was high that day. Allied forces suffered nearly 10,000 killed or wounded. Although the allies had taken the first steps toward success, the battle was far from over. There would be many more in the search for total victory. Eisenhower and his command on that day had begun the difficult march towards Berlin and the defeat of the Nazi war machine. That final victory came in late spring of 1945, less than a year later.
With each passing year, we seem to hear less of the sacrifice of the men and women on that June day long ago. History calls those that fought the Second World War the Greatest Generation. The evening news will run stories telling of the battle 70 years ago. They will show endless rows of snow white crosses in the cemetery above Normandy's beaches. Viewers may see a family among the crosses as they remember a loved one from long ago. They hold each other and whisper of those that never came home. In the years since the war, an ocean of tears have fallen upon that sacred ground and only the angels know the full count of men and tears lost at this place. Not far from the hallowed ground, endless waves crash upon the Normandy Beaches; waves that washed away the blood and lives of soldiers that are now stories in history books.
Those of us that were not there can never know the terrible events of that day up close. But for a moment try and imagine you were one of those young soldiers heading toward Omaha Beach that morning. His gut all tied up in a knot of fear as he waited for the front to open on his landing craft. Over the sound of engine and waves he could hear the endless gun fire and men calling out for help beyond the protection of the front ramp. The heavy smell of diesel fuel and motion sickness filled the early morning air in the cramped space. He squeezed his weapon tightly in his hands as he pressed his cheek against the cool steel wall of the landing craft. He waited for the sudden drop of the ramp and the war he was soon to be part of. The young man from the mid-west had never seen the sands of a beach before. But the sands of Omaha Beach would be something he would never forget. He escaped for a moment into thoughts of his wife waiting back home. Men don't cry from fear, they weep from what they may leave behind and unsaid.
Suddenly, he feels the landing craft lurch as it comes to rest upon the shifting sands. For a moment there is no sound except the words to his God inside his mind. The he hears, "Let's go" from his sergeant and breaks from his safe place inside his mind as the front ramp drops onto the beach. No time for thoughts of family or glory and no great plan to liberating Europe. In that moment his only thought is to survive in this place of war. Time had no meaning as he made his way up the beach toward anything that can provide him cover, even if the that cover is a fallen soldier. As he lies there he looks into the lifeless eyes of the man who just moments before may have been thinking of his family and his God. In an instant, all that he was or ever could be is gone into the bloody sands of the beach. His war is over and a family left at home does not receive a telegram for two days. They cannot even visit his resting place until the war is over.
The young soldier heard his sergeant shouting to advance. He does what his training has taught him, follow orders and pray. Inch by inch and yard by yard the soldier made his way up the beach toward an enemy he cannot see. All the terrible things he sees as he moves forward are ignored by his mind. Whether by courage or by knowledge, whatever is going to happen will happen. His fear was replaced by the instinct to survive.
Historians write of the victory and the part the invasion made in the outcome of the war. They tell of the great battle plans used in the invasion of Europe and how the Allied command worked toward ending the war. But, for me, it is the forgotten stories told by each of the thousands of soldiers who left their families and homes to fight an enemy in foreign lands.
William Tecumseh Sherman in 1879 told the graduating class of Michigan Military Academy, "I tell you, war is hell!: That June day, 70 years ago this Friday, is but one day that echoes Sherman's words in our country's history. War is fought by men and women who must find the courage to overcome fear when all there is, is fear. Courage to remember their training and the belief that they can make a difference-a difference that is made by one person at great personal sacrifices. That inner courage is what made a difference on the beaches of Normandy a lifetime ago.
We celebrate Memorial Day and Veterans Day with parades and holidays. We place American Flags on the graves of the fallen here in America and around the world. We tell ourselves that we understand their sacrifices. D-Day is remembered by words on a calendar and perhaps an old John Wayne movie on TV. It is also remembered proudly by American Legions and VFWs with flags and words of honor for soldiers past and present. But, it is most remembered by the men who fought on the beaches of Normandy that day in 1944. And it is remembered by the old soldier from the mid-west who looked into the eyes of a man who sacrificed all. This Friday, when you look upon our great country, remember 70 years ago American Soldiers fought and died to keep us all free.
They fought to give us the ability to say, "God Bless America" and we should remember what price those words cost the American Soldier back then and still today as we look Through the Lens.