In a small American town, in July 1938, an emotional gathering of veterans signaled the end of an era. The reunion took place on the sacred soil of Gettysburg, Pa., and it marked the last time that the aged soldiers of the Civil War came together to remember what happened there, 75 years earlier. After that, Gettysburg and the Civil War quickly slipped out of first-person memory and into history.
On June 6, 2019, a similar bittersweet transformation is underway, as veterans of history’s greatest amphibious invasion, launched in the midst of another necessary war, meet on the beaches of Normandy, France. The 75th anniversary of the D-Day assault on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall will, in all probability, mark the last time these survivors, now old and dwindling in numbers, will come together. That makes it especially important to acknowledge, once again, their bravery and the salvation they bought, often at cost of their lives.
These were brave men, but that doesn’t mean they were fearless. Bravery isn’t about being unafraid, but about surmounting fear and acting in spite of it. That, surely, was the order of the day June 6, 1944, and a primary reason that Germany surrendered 11 months later.
Their courage was incomprehensible even then: thousands of young men – American, Canadian and British youth, many of them hardly more than boys – storming a heavily defended coast, knowing death was a probability. Three-quarters of a century later, with a fuller understanding of the complexity and ferocity of the day, their courage seems only to expand. And, as at Gettysburg, their valor made a difference – on that very day, even – and still does today, even if it is often invisible.
The day wasn’t over before the town of Sainte-Mère-Église was taken by Americans, led by the paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne. The town’s liberation was secured the next day and its residents’ gratitude is a living thing. There, and around Normandy, the politics of the moment never seems to matter to people who hold a continuing sense of gratitude and affection for Americans.
We fail, often, to recognize the long-lasting reverberations of signal events. Like Gettysburg, a battle whose outcome eventually allowed for the end of slavery in the United States, D-Day’s ultimate success paved the way for Europe’s liberation and the lives that Americans are free to live today.
But imagine if the invasion failed and the continent had continued to bristle with arms and millions more of Hitler’s unwanted – Jews, homosexuals and others viewed as inferior – continued to be exterminated. As it was, two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered. Imagine if England had fallen. How would life have been different, here and around the world, in the decades since?
Those who come to those beaches today – Omaha and Utah for the Americans, Gold and Sword for the British, Juno for the Canadians – are fulfilling human and national obligations. But viewing that placid coastline, even with its memorials, it is all but impossible to picture the scene as it appeared 75 years ago: nearly 7,000 ships and landing craft riding on the water; more than 2,300 aircraft in the sky; and 156,000 Allied men on a mission to rescue Europe, and possibly the world, from mechanized tyranny.
On that day, alone, 4,414 Allied fighters were killed, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. An estimated 2,501 of them were Americans, many of their bodies strewn across a bloody red Omaha Beach, where U.S. troops suffered their worst casualties of the day.
But those who visit the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach, may leave with a deeper, more profound sense of the bravery, sacrifice and determination of the men who landed there, 75 years ago. We owe them a debt that cannot be repaid, one that will long outlive them or any of the rest of us, even as their heroism slips into history.