SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, at 6:30 on the morning of June 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history began along the French coastline in Normandy. At stake was nothing short of the future of the modern world.
The invasion really started the day before, after typically atrocious English weather already had postponed it for a day. Some 160,000 Allied troops stealthily set off across the English Channel on June 5. The effort included some 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft.
Great pains had been taken to catch the Germans unawares, but complete surprise was an impossibility. Allied troops had to overcome mines, barbed wire and German gun emplacements after they made landfall.
By the time beachheads were established, there were more than 10,000 Allied casualties, with 4,414 killed. The dead included 19 soldiers from Bedford, a small Virginia town that then had a population of only 3,200 and which now is home to the National D-Day Memorial.
The Germans were not defeated on June 6. A major town near the coast, Caen, wasn’t secured for another six weeks. By the end of June, though, 875,000 Allied troops were on French soil, and the Germans’ Atlantic Wall had been fatally breached.
The slow and often bloody march to Berlin would go on for another 11 months, but D-Day was the beginning of the end for Adolph Hitler’s barbarous Third Reich.
D-Day has become synonymous with the date on which something of great importance is to take place. It is appropriate that the phrase plants June 6, 1944, in our memory, even as those who came ashore and lived to tell about it dwindle.
It is difficult to say exactly how many D-Day warriors are still with us, but there are less than half a million World War II survivors from the United States, and we lose about 350 a day. Those surviving the pivotal event in that war that saved the world from darkness are well into their 90s by now.
An 18-year-old who braved the freezing water and German machine-gun fire as his fellow soldiers fell beside him that day would be 93 today.
In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion, thousand of aging veterans made the trip to Normandy, visiting the American Cemetery where their compatriots are interred and walking along beaches that still warned of unexploded bombs. Shops in seaside French towns welcomed “our American liberators.”
Most of those liberators, who no doubt would not have given themselves such a high-falutin’ title, are gone now. In another decade or so, the last D-Day survivor probably will pass on to his eternal reward.
But today, and every June 6, even after they are all gone, it is important for us to remember the day they risked everything for their country.