60 years ago today
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.