D-Day At 75
Seventy-five years ago today, American soldiers and our allies undertook an invasion that helped change the world.
Seventy-five years ago today, American, British, and Canadian soldiers, aided by small groups of soldiers from other nations, including several that were at the time occupied by and under the control of Nazi Germany, began what was and remains the most ambitious and daring amphibious assault in human history. While we would see a similar strategy unfold some six years later when American forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur landed on the beaches of Inchon as part of the effort to counteract the invasion of South Korea by its neighbor to the north, the sheer size and scope of what the military called Operation Overlord will likely make it unique in human history and an operation that historians and military experts will be discussing a hundred years from now.
Today, many of the men who took part in that invasion who are still with us will gather with world leaders such as the President of the United States and the leaders, to honor those men, but the current state of the world is leading to inevitable comparisons to the state of the world today and the men who landed on those beaches, many of them not to even survive to get past the surf:
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, FRANCE — Onofrio Zicari had never been able to bring himself to return to the beaches of Normandy.
But this year, at 96, the retired Los Angeles milkman decided he had to come back to the place seared into his memory from the morning of June 6, 1944, when he stormed Omaha Beach in the fifth wave of incoming soldiers on D-Day. He flew from his home in Las Vegas to northern France — nearly 5,300 miles — to find one particular white cross in the American cemetery.
Donald E. Simmons was the last one out of the landing craft that morning, as Zicari and the others made their way across the water and through an onslaught of German gunfire from the ridge in the distance. Simmons was killed almost instantly, Zicari said, his hand on his friend’s grave. “He was my buddy.”
At 21 and 20, Zicari and Simmons were still boys on D-Day. They would have had a hard time imagining 75 years later. Only one of those boys lived to see the end of the war, the rites of marriage and fatherhood, the grandeur of what was called the American century.
Hovering above a foreign shoreline, the cemetery presents a particular image of the United States abroad. This is a memorial to a proudly internationalist society that — to quote the inscription on the memorial chapel here — sacrificed its sons “for the common cause of humanity.” But, 75 years later, America’s role on the world stage no longer seems as certain. The future of the postwar order won in battles like D-Day is anyone’s guess.
President Trump campaigned — and won — on the creed of “America First,” a catchphrase that evokes an America entirely foreign on the beaches of Normandy and that, in any case, Zicari was uninterested in discussing. “I don’t like to get into politics,” he said.
When asked why he came back, he said: “So the nightmares would stop.”
For presidential historian Jon Meacham, D-Day is a symbol whose meaning has changed with the times — in the mid-1960s, it was a Cold War rallying cry; in the mid-1980s, an underpinning in Ronald Reagan’s call for American restoration.
This was the essence of Reagan’s iconic 1984 “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech (credited to speechwriter Peggy Noonan). “And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead,” Reagan said.
In 2019, Meacham noted, the beaches of Normandy have yet another meaning.
“This year, I think many Americans who are likely to be sentimental about the story of Operation Overlord are also likely to be supporting a president whose instincts are isolationist, not interventionist, and who takes a dim view of the postwar order that more or less kept the peace for more than half a century,” he said.
“These beaches teach us the steep toll of isolation and America First — and should be perennial reminders that we cannot escape history.”
Pierre Vimont, a former ambassador to the United States, said the isolationist rhetoric emanating from the White House does not accurately reflect the status of the transatlantic relationship enshrined in Normandy.
“Despite the sometimes spectacular declarations, the foundations of this relationship remain solid,” Vimont said. “There is a reality of cooperation and transatlantic relations that remains very strong.”
The other lesson of D-Day, of course, is the importance and value of alliances and the extent to which stable alliances can prove to be a bulwark against war rather than, as many believed in the wake of World War One, the cause of them. It was largely because the Europe of 1918-1939 was not fully united that Germany under Hitler was able to get away with behavior that was clearly in violation of its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. Why it was able to rearm despite explicit treaty obligations not to do so. And why Europe was thoroughly unprepared in the late 1930’s when Hitler’s true intentions began to become apparent through events such as the beginning of the persecutions of German Jews, the Anschluss that merged Austria into Germany, and the annexation of the nation of Czechoslovakia, which had been formed out of some of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the so-called “War To End All Wars.”
Those lessons about the importance of alliances can also be seen in the invasion itself, which had troops from dozens of nations taking part in something that very easily could have failed miserably and set the war effort back by a year or longer. The principal participants, of course, came from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the “free” French forces led by Charles de Gaulle. In addition to those, there were also forces from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland. Working together, these men, some of them barely eighteen years old, undertook an invasion that many thought impossible, a cross-Channel invasion that, in the end, even Hitler did not attempt.
Those lessons about the importance of alliances are seemingly being forgotten today. Thanks to a referendum that seems more unwise as every day passes, the United Kingdom is in the process of severing its ties to the European Union for what are ultimately dubious reasons. Here in the United States, we are being led by a President who seems intent on turning his back on our most loyal allies while coddling dictators who stand for the kind of oppression that the boys and men who stormed the beaches of Normandy on this day so long ago were fighting against. Indeed, as I have noted in the past here and here, this President has done more to drive wedges between America and our most important allies than any adversary could have ever dreamed of. One would hope that participating in today’s anniversary celebration, most likely the last major anniversary that anyone who was alive at the time will be able to attend or witness on television, President Trump would learn a lesson about alliances, but I would not be optimistic about that.
This is not an occasion to get too political, though.
Today is a day that we should pause, even if only momentarily, to remember what was happening on this day three-quarters of a century ago. The sacrifices that were made, the men who were gunned down by German guns only minutes after stepping off the Higgins boats that had brought them across the English Channel, and the battles that were waged from Northern France into Germany over the course of the ensuing eleven months that elapsed from the invasion to the final gasps of Nazi tyranny. Whatever nation they came from, most of them were just regular boys who came to the service of their nation when called. When the war was over, most of them just returned home to resume their lives as they were prior to the time when their first put on a uniform. Some of them became famous for other reasons, but most of them just became ordinary citizens, fathers, husbands, and grandfathers. We owe most of what the world became after their fight was over to the sacrifices they and their fellow soldiers made and this will be our last chance to say “thank you” to those still with us.
As I noted, there was no guarantee that the D-Day invasion would succeed. Indeed, both Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and American President Franklin Roosevelt had prepared messages that would be delivered in the event of such a failure. In the end, though, those speeches proved unnecessary as it was clear within hours that the Allied Forces had gained a sufficient foothold on the beaches to continue fighting forward. It would not be an easy fight, of course. It took much of the summer, for example, to clear German forces out of Northern France, an event which led to the joyous liberation of Paris at the end of August. From there, the push of Allied might that pushed the Wehrmacht back toward Germany, combined with the victories that the Soviets were achieving on the Eastern Front, the successes in Italy that had culminated in the liberation of Rome just a day before D-Day, and the lesser-known but just as ambitious amphibious assault on the beaches of southern France in August 1944, became overwhelming and the outcome of the war in Europe more certain by the day. When this all began seventy-five years ago, this morning, it was still in doubt whether that would happen. The fact that it did is something we all need to be grateful for and make sure to never forget.
The defining event of the 20th century.
The allies had learned from the failures of the Treaty of Versailles and set the stage for peace in Europe, and for Japan, that has lasted 74 years. But the lessons learned seem to have faded with time and we seem intent on repeating the mistakes that led to WWII. As Doug says, we must never forget. Never forget not only the bravery of the participants, but the wisdom of their leaders.
http://ww2today.com/ has a number of first hand accounts of the day posted.
Thank you for posting this, Doug!
One way in which today is an anniversary is that until the Overlord operation, British (and Commonwealth) soldiers actually fighting against our enemies outnumbered American soldiers. We tend to forget the immense losses in men and boys that our allies suffered.
Very nice piece, @Doug.
The beaches, the bocage, the Hürtgen Forest, the bulge and finally the Siegfried Line and Buchenwald. They saved the world.
@JohnMcC: Indeed. We forget the British had been at war with Germany and Italy for two years before Pearl Harbor. Even the British are prone to forget the role of the Commonwealth, which suffered huge casualties and provided piles of food and material. And Russia had been fighting Germany and suffering terribly for six months before we entered the war.
Yes, it’s a good post, Doug.
Of the roughly 156,000 Allied soldiers who took part in the Normandy invasion, about 3,000 were Free French. The number of members of the Légion des volontaires français contre le bolchévisme and its successors who fought for the Nazis were larger than that. It is unknown how many of them died on D-Day. It also goes unmentioned that some Russian soldiers took part in D-Day—on the other side, part of the Russian Liberation Army.
I hope Europe makes it to the 100th anniversary without either a war or a wholesale splintering of the international order. The latter was a gift without which we might not be here today.
The USSR bore the big brunt of the war in Europe. Don’t forget most German troops, as well as their best units, were deployed at the Eastern Front.
Just the same, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact makes it hard to feel much sympathy for Stalin’s regime. He gave the Nazis a huge leg up, before they turned around and betrayed the Soviets.
One can sympathize with the average Soviet citizen, who suffered under both the Nazis and Stalin.
The Soviets had more military casualties than all of the other combatant countries, Allies or Axis, put together. They lost much of a whole generation. Their total casualties, civilian and military, may have amounted to as many as 30 million people, about a sixth of their total population.
@Kathy: @Dave Schuler:
I’d love to know what percentage of Soviet war dead were killed by NKVD, or in camps after the war.
That doesn’t change the fact Stalin helped Hitler prior to 1941.
As I said, I feel sorry for the people who died and those who suffered. It wasn’t their fault they lived under one of the worst people ever to pollute the Earth with their lives.
No one really knows. We do know the number killed between June and November 1941: around half a million.
BTW, I’m not trying to drum up sympathy for the Soviets, merely trying to suggest how the Russians think of World War II. It’s why they’re reacting to the D-Day commemoration as they are.
Their view is probably closer to the reality than that of most Americans. Hitler or Stalin they took an unholy beating, and in the end we turned a tidy profit.
I’m just now reading Antony Beevor’s D-Day. He makes the point that, while the Red Army did the hardest land fighting up to June, 1944, German losses during the battle for Normandy were heavier than their average losses per month on the Eastern Front up to that time. Also, because Hitler was convinced he could crush an invasion of France and then work out a deal with Stalin, his best Panzer divisions were positioned in the West.