Decades after my father landed in Europe during the D-Day Battle for Normandy, he finally talked about it, including the horror of watching men laden with heavy packs and weapons drowning because they couldn’t swim in the frigid, churning water.
He also talked about the grit, bravery and determination of the young Allied soldiers as they struggled to regroup and head up the beaches dodging staccato bursts of deadly German fire.
My dad would have two more years of intense fighting. But D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge remained pivotal in his memories of war throughout his life, although he would return home, father 10 children and march in Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades for more than 60 years.
Fewer than one in seven Americans alive today was alive on June 6, 1944, one of the most fateful military dates in history. But Normandy still stands as a synonym for courage, heroism and the best humans have to offer — making the supreme sacrifice to help others.
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It’s hard for us today to realize how electrifying the news of the D-Day invasion was on the home front, how dreadful it would have been if the invasion had failed as such a complicated, weather-battered operation could so easily have done. If Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had waited any longer, the great storm of mid-June might have been insurmountable.
I was privileged to be at the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I will never forget the lined, proud faces of the veterans who managed long airplane rides, canes, wheelchairs and arthritic knees to be there. I will always remember how their eyes shone with tears as they reached to grasp the left hand of Bob Dole, the Kansas senator who lost the use of his right arm and is beloved for his courage and service in World War II.
There were even some paratroopers who re-enacted their daring plunge from the skies over enemy territory to light the fires that would help the airborne assaults.
Former President Clinton was the speaker that day. Some mocked him for walking alone on the beach, picking up a few stones, “staging a photo opportunity.” But as a student of history, William Jefferson Clinton was completely awed as he contemplated the sacrifices and heroism of June 6, 1944.
And who could not be moved by what happened at Normandy, even today? The Germans were expecting an invasion and were well-fortified. They didn’t know when it would happen but they believed a defeat at Normandy would mean the end of the Fatherland.
Eisenhower was a bundle of nerves, smoking four packs a day and drinking gallons of coffee, trying to plan the agonizingly postponed operation of moving nearly 150,000 military personnel over the storm-tossed English Channel, the first such successful opposed landing in eight centuries. He also had to coordinate the air attack for the largest amphibious landing ever to occur. In one month, 1 million men were landed.
Who even today is not moved by the quiet nearby cemeteries, with their rows and rows of eerily symmetrical white crosses and Stars of David?
During the liberation of Normandy, 19,890 French civilians were killed and thousands more were injured. During three summer months in 1944, the Wehrmacht lost 240,000 men. During that period, 125,847 Americans died, and 83,045 British, Canadian and Polish soldiers were lost. An additional 16,714 Allied air force personnel perished.
On a bluff overlooking the channel, are 9,387 Americans who never returned home and are buried at the American cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer, including 33 pairs of brothers and a father and his son.
As Clinton said as he looked around the veterans in front of him 20 years ago, “Let us never forget, when they were young, these men saved the world.”
Even when there are no Americans left who were alive on D-Day, the Normandy invasion never will be forgotten.
© , McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.