Seventy-two years ago, on June 6, 1944, Allied troops waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. The night before, on June 5, American airborne forces had landed on the western flank of the invasion area near Sainte-Mère-Église, while British airborne forces secured the eastern flank and Pegasus Bridge. They jumped out of C-47 Dakota transport planes, through darkness and into glory. Some arrived by glider. Private John Steele of the 82nd Airborne landed on the steeple of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église. He managed to survive by playing dead.
Today a visitor to Sainte-Mère-Église can observe a mannequin representing Steele hanging from the church tower. Inside the church is a stained glass window of the Virgin Mary surrounded by American paratroopers.
On Utah Beach — all the landing sites had code names — 56-year-old Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (the oldest son of former president Teddy Roosevelt) landed about a mile away from his intended target. When asked whether to re-embark the 4th Infantry Division, he simply said, “We’ll start the war from right here!” Prior to the landing, Omaha Beach, also known as Bloody Omaha, had received an abbreviated naval bombardment from ships such as the battleship Texas lasting only thirty-five minutes. The bare stretches of beach offered no cover for the American invaders as German machine guns from fortified gun emplacements swept the beaches. The U.S. Rangers, who had trained earlier on the cliffs of Dorset, scaled the sheer cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc while being shot at by German soldiers. Their mission was to destroy artillery pieces targeted on the landing zones.
The Canadians stormed ashore on Juno Beach. James Doohan, who later played Scotty on Star Trek, was among the Canadian soldiers that day. Sword and Gold Beaches were reserved for the British forces. A small contingent of French commandos joined the British on Sword and helped capture Ouistreham, destroying the casino there. One French officer who had previously lost at the tables was not sorry to see the casino in ruins that day.
With the D-Day landing, the Allies, in spite of the vast size of their armada and the relative openness of their societies, achieved a remarkable strategic surprise over the Germans. On June 6, Rommel was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday. Hitler was persisting in the mistaken belief that the Normandy invasion was a feint and that the real blow would be struck at Pas de Calais.
Imagine if an operation like the Normandy landing were to occur today in 2016, in the age of social media! Interactive polls would ask: “Which beach do you prefer, Normandy or Pas de Calais?” Could all the members of the 101st Screaming Eagles, painted in Indian war paint with Mohawk haircuts, be counted upon not to post their pictures on Facebook? That seems doubtful.
This June 6, raise a glass and toast the heroism of all those young men who fought to liberate America’s oldest ally from Nazi occupation. Without their service and sacrifice, our world might be a darker place. Gen. Patton may have summed it up best when he said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
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Christopher Kelly is the co-author of ‘America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with Almost Every Country on Earth,’ and ‘Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World.’