D-Day Remembered

60 years ago today

Barrett Tillman
Special for The Republic
Jun. 6, 2004

History is where you find it.

Certainly it's found in books, and increasingly on television. But while we still enjoy the company of one-quarter of those who fought in World War II, let's not forget to look close to home. Next door, around the corner, across town. They're still with us, the veterans of June 6, 1944, and the scores of D-Days that preceded and followed the Normandy invasion. We can still say "Thank you" for their sacrifice and their service.

For a moment, let's consider what those veterans meant to America and to the world. Let's ponder what their victory accomplished - and what it did not.

Operation Neptune (the naval portion) delivered Overlord (the landing invasion) to five beaches along the Normandy coast: two American, two British, one Canadian. Some 175,000 Allied airborne and ground troops comprised the initial landings, which left perhaps 3,400 of them dead or missing.

German losses are even less certain.

The French citizens suffered severely, from the Germans, from the Allies and from internecine conflict. Allied bombers and artillery inflicted massive damage. Surveying a ruined French city, an American soldier gained anonymous immortality when he said, "We sure liberated the hell out of this place."

Among the eloquent oratory attending the WWII Memorial and the D-Day anniversary is a frequent refrain: The Greatest Generation preserved America's freedom. It is, however, an overstatement. The plain fact is that neither Germany nor Japan ever had the ability to conquer America.

By June 1944, both Axis powers had lost control of the sea, besides which they lacked the ships and manpower to occupy North America. (If Hitler was unable to invade Britain in 1940, how could he occupy America?) In fact, the Axis already was fatally overextended on the Eurasian landmass and in China.

Even today, orators continue overstating the threat to America's freedom. While our security may be at risk in the war on terror, our freedom is as secure as We The People want it. Not even during the height (or depth) of the Cold War was American freedom at stake. The Soviet Union had the power to destroy us, but never could have enslaved us. Only Americans have the ability to deprive Americans of their freedom.

What, then, was America's stake on Norman beaches?

The question answers itself. At stake was Western Civilization, and the freedom of most of Europe. France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway and other nations awaited liberation. In fact, so did Germany and its European allies: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Sadly, many of them merely exchanged one oppressor for another: Nazism for Communism.

One of those future victims was on hand to meet a 9th Air Force P-51 group. When the pilots climbed out of their Mustangs after a D-Day mission, they were met by King Peter of Yugoslavia. Optimistically, he expected to regain his nation after the Allied victory.

A monumental undertaking

WWII was a peoples' war. More than 16 million of 138 million Americans joined the armed forces. If today's armed forces represented the same proportions, you would have 34 million of America's 295 million people in uniform. Today, there are but 2 million serving in the active, guard and reserve forces.

The production feat was enormous, easily the greatest in history. Of more than 5,000 ships and landing craft in Operation Neptune, most of the former and all the latter had been built since 1941. But long before D-Day, the Allies had to defeat the U-boats, a campaign largely completed in mid-1943. Once the Atlantic pipeline was opened, a flood of men and materiel spanned the sea lanes, bringing the wealth and youth of the New World to the rescue of the Old.

It was a war of logistics. Consequently, it was won at home, in the factories and farms. Among other things, America manufactured 79,000 landing craft; 297,000 airplanes; 2.5 million trucks; 12.8 million rifles; and 190 million pairs of boots and shoes.

Logistics also bore heavily upon manpower, as less than 25 percent of the Allied troops in France belonged to combat units. For every infantryman, tanker or artilleryman who crossed Omaha and Utah Beach, four or five other GIs backed him up: clerks, cooks, mechanics, truck drivers, doctors and nurses.

So when you think of the WWII vet, don't allow your mental computer to default to the traditional image. He may have been your father, grandfather or the neighbor you hardly knew. But give him tribute, gentle reader, whether he used a bazooka, a bomber or a bulldozer.

When you think of the WWII vet, think of the uncle who collected scrap metal or the aunt who learned to use a rivet gun.

When you think of WWII, think of a nation unified in its purpose with a steely resolve. It was the kind of single-mindedness that took us from 30,000 feet over the skies of Europe in 1944 to the lunar Sea of Tranquility only 25 years later.

Millions pay ultimate price

It's astonishing to contemplate. Germany, with a population of some 77 million, challenged virtually the rest of Western Civilization. The United States counted 138 million people; Russia 108 million. Yet it took the United States, Russia and the British Empire nearly six years to defeat Nazi Germany.

It's an inherent fault of democracies, which seldom learn the ancient wisdom of fourth-century military writer Vegetius. Fifteen centuries before D-Day, he wrote, "Who desires peace should prepare for war." That's why 20 years of European appeasement and American complacency required a generation of young men to crawl up fire-swept beaches, leaving their blood and their friends and their youth in sandy venues from France to New Guinea to Okinawa.

The Atlantic Wall was an imposing barrier, with Wagnerian bunkers concealing powerful cannon. But it was a porous blockade, often thinly manned. Germany disposed of 850,000 troops in France but only 80,000 in Normandy.

The Allied deception plan had worked: Hitler's strength lay in the Pas de Calais. Against 175,000 Allied troops enjoying uncontested air supremacy, it seems remarkable that the issue was ever in doubt. And yet it was in doubt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower penned a note for release in event that Overlord failed.

Meanwhile, there are 11 U.S. government cemeteries in France. They contain the graves of some 60,000 Americans who died liberating that country, roughly 30,000 each in both world wars.

Somehow, the Great War - the one that was to end all wars - escaped the same degree of memorialization. There is no tribute to the 116,000 Americans who were killed in 1917-18, and there probably never will be one. That generation is gone, and with it the constituency that could build a memorial.

While most French citizens were grateful for liberation, their governments then and since remain truculent. Perhaps it's Gaullic resentment at essential American aid in two world wars, combined with a cultural invasion expressed in Levi's and McDonald's. If so, surely America's debt to France in the Revolution has been paid with interest.

Today, many Americans describe the French government as "lower than sunken pond scum." But remember that people do not always reflect their governments. An example is the following e-mail from a former airline pilot:

"On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I was flying a 757 from JFK to Paris. After the usual post-landing customs dance, we met the wizened little Frenchman with the large white moustache who drove our crew bus to town. He had decorated his dashboard with a little display of crossed American and French flags, and he greeted us with repeated, 'Sank you, Americans! Sank you!' "

Despite the political rhetoric, America did not free itself on Utah or Omaha Beach. America did something grander: It freed a continent of enslaved people. And for that, Mon vieu, most U.S. veterans would reply, "You're welcome."

Barrett Tillman is a Valley resident and an expert on the history of air warfare. He has published 20 non-fiction volumes and four novels, earning five awards for history, biography and literature. He has served as publisher of Champlin Museum Press in Mesa and managing editor of the Tailhook Association journal in San Diego.

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