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70 years: A reflection on D-Day
U.S. ARMY PHOTO/DefenseLink.com —
Soldiers move onto a beach in Normandy during the Allied invasion of Europe, D-Day, June 6, 1944. After fierce fighting, the Allies established a foothold in northern France.
Close on the heels of the Memorial Day weekend comes another opportunity to recognize the U.S. military: the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944.
That extraordinary effort, which Winston Churchill called “the most difficult and complicated operation to ever take place,” served to open another front in the titanic struggle to free Europe from Adolph Hitler’s domination.
The 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” depicted part of that extraordinary effort, providing a graphic glimpse of the bloody sacrifice on D-Day. A neighbor of mine, who had served as a U.S. Army Ranger during the war, belonged to the second wave of forces to land at Normandy. When asked if the movie portrayal was accurate, he replied, “No, it was much worse.”
The cold statistics are these: More than 5,000 American and British troops lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy on that single day.
And Normandy wasn’t the only place where Americans and our Allies lost soldiers, seamen, or airmen. History records other important events that occurred in June 1944.
The British launched an attack on Japanese forces dug in at Mogaung in Burma, a key to the Allied offensive in that theater of war. The Russians initiated Operation Bagration, which resulted in their recapture of the city of Minsk.
On June 5, the day before D-Day, American and British forces liberated Rome. Three weeks later, the Battle of the Philippine Sea ended as a significant U.S. Navy victory against the Japanese.
Yet, we remember D-Day as the pivotal battle of World War II. As another movie, “The Longest Day,” noted before the credits rolled, it was “the end of the beginning ... and the beginning of the end” of that war.
In retrospect, the resounding success at Normandy, though costly, seems to have been inevitable. But it easily could have turned into a disaster. After the battle, U.S. soldiers felt confident that they would be in Berlin before Christmas. In reality, they would find themselves in late December staving off a major German offensive in Belgium -- in the Battle of the Bulge. On D-Day, victory in Europe was still 11 months away.
When I reflect upon events of 1944 and 1945, I am struck by two things. First of all is the high loss of life that military leaders deemed “acceptable.” Such losses certainly would not be acceptable today. Our country has learned to make our weapons smarter -- and our military has learned how to use them -- to minimize war’s collateral damage, both to minimize the risk to our military and to avoid making casualties of innocent civilians.
We Americans value individual human life because we value individual freedom. War is undeniably deadly, but I sincerely believe that no country at war tries harder than ours to minimize the loss of human life.
A second thing that strikes me is how long after D-Day the war was finally won. Even after the monumental success of the immense military operation, which involved more than 176,000 troops, 3,000 aircraft, and 5,000 ships, the end of the war in Europe was still almost a year in coming.
In the Pacific, Imperial Japan didn’t surrender for another 15 months. But our World War II forebears -- military members, political leaders, and the general public -- stayed the course. Despite loss of life and numerous setbacks and
disappointments, they did not lose heart or nerve. They stayed the course for our country, for our freedom, and for the relative peace that followed.
We can look back to our World War II forebears, whom Tom Brokaw deserves credit for memorializing as “the greatest generation,” for inspiration today. We can admire them not only for their bravery but also for their perseverance and their dedication to a strategy -- a master plan that many could not fathom -- to attain a final goal that many would not live to see.
Let us remember the heroes of D-Day. Let us also think about the brave men and women of all our armed forces who are on duty throughout the world, seeing to it that the liberties we all cherish will not be taken away by those who would do us harm. Let us think about those young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines wearing Kevlar helmets and body armor in hostile environments today. In contrast to their World War II forebears, they dutifully accomplish daily missions as part of a strategy our political leaders may have forgotten in actions that seldom make the news. Let us remember them and pray they come home safely.
Correspondent Gregory Ripps is a military history buff who served in the Texas National Guard for 38 years.
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