The egomaniacal ambition of one man, Adolph Hitler, summoned the Allied forces to war in World War II. If they did not stop him, he would not be stopped. Every soldier was an Atlas, bearing the fate of the world on his shoulders.
Before the Battle of Normandy began on D-Day, June 6, 1944, soldiers of America, Britain and Canada said goodbyes that no amount of reassurances could keep from being final. Wives wept in the final embrace of parting. Mothers looked into the eyes of their sons, releasing them to battle as a sacrifice of their own. Children watched fathers walk away.
Many things are remarkable about the battle hailed as “the beginning of the end of WWII,” but few are as unexpected as historical photographs of the calm faces of men about to die for their country. Packed into barges carrying them to deadly beaches, every face is introspective yet calm. There are no tears. There is no rage. Among paratroopers lined up in air carriers about to parachute to the field of battle, every face is quiet. There is no visible fear. They are not talking, each in solemn confrontation of his own mortality. How in the world could they do it—jump to earth, jump out of boats and slog through waves on the way to death—with calm faces! If their hearts were thundering to burst out of their chests, they did not show it.
To the incredible bravery of these men, we owe our country and our freedom, our peace and our prosperity. The world for which they were willing to die can never be worthy of them. We can only give them our gratitude, our respect and our eternal thanks. Let us do that every Memorial Day, and always.
The Allied invasion of Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in history, combining the might of 156,115 troops from the United States, Britain and Canada, 6,929 ships and landing vessels, 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders delivering airborne troops. Its success became the critical pivot toward victory in World War II.
Wretched weather caused a one-day delay, which 1,000 British bombers used to good effect by dropping 5,000 tons of munitions on Nazi gun batteries along the coast, damaging Germany’s defenses. On June 6, 1944, the D-Day invasion began in the pre-dawn hours with thousands of paratroopers landing inland to cut off exits and destroy bridges to slow Nazi reinforcements. American paratroopers suffered high casualties, some drowning under heavy equipment in flooded marshland, others shot out of the sky by Nazi snipers. Then thousands of ships landed troops on 50 miles of Normandy’s beaches to confront an entrenched enemy who was fanatical, formidable and brutally well-prepared.
Anticipating an Allied invasion but unable to pinpoint when or where it would occur, Hitler had ordered the construction of the Atlantic Wall—a 2,400-mile line of bunkers, and beach and water obstacles. The shoreline was treacherous with wooden stakes, metal tripods and barbed wire; an estimated 4 million landmines were planted along the beaches. On the bluffs above were heavily fortified Nazi artillery positions.
As wave after wave of 15,000 Allied infantrymen disembarked into the freezing waters and stormed ashore, they were mowed down by staccato machine gun fire from above as the death-trapped sands exploded and attacked beneath their feet. They did not stop. The beaches became a bloody carpet of human bodies, and men had to scramble over their fallen comrades to advance. They did not turn back.
Canadian soldiers who landed at a heavily defended strip of shoreline at Juno Beach were gunned down en masse by Nazi artillery with an initial casualty rate of 50 percent. They did not give up. They pushed beyond the beachfront and pursued the Germans inland.
All five Normandy beaches were secured by Allied forces by June 11.
German casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 4,000 to 9,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 10,000. Total Allied deaths on D-Day numbered 4,413 fallen heroes.
The victorious troops installed two massive, temporary harbors that had taken six months to construct back in England. The Allies then unloaded 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies at these temporary harbors over the remaining course of the war. The massive influx of troops and equipment marked a decisive turning point in the war. Less than a year later, on May 7, 1945, Germany signed an unconditional surrender.
The veterans who survived D-Day rarely speak of it except to express gratitude for victory. A silence of respect seals those days. They are too horrific to describe, too wounding to remember. Veterans accept thanks for their service and sacrifice with a simple solemnity. They share the gratitude of their nation to the bold comrades who did not come back, who—in rescuing the world—had to leave it in order to save it. The fallen made the ultimate sacrifice—they gave their lives for our lives. It is that simple.
Setting fire to the American flag only requires a match. Keeping the flag unfurled and the flame of liberty alight require matchless courage. Our fallen heroes made the ultimate sacrifice—they gave their lives for our country and for the generations to come. For us. For our children and grandchildren. Thank our veterans. We owe them everything.
The military term “D-Day” is a placeholder for the launch date of a mission so the actual date isn’t discovered by spies. The name of the overall Normandy invasion was Operation Overlord, and D-Day’s official name was Operation Neptune.