When the United States put its young men ashore on D-Day 79 years ago, they were not alone.
Although Americans remember Omaha Beach, where some of the toughest fighting occurred, there were other beaches where other young men died.
Many of those fighters for democracy came from the United Kingdom and Canada, but Free French and Poles in exile were also among the combatants. They too are part of the story memorialized by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
By mid-1944, after years of combat and human sacrifice — not least, of course, by millions of Russians in the eastern snows — Germany’s bid for world conquest was on the ropes. With all the risks of such a complex and extraordinary undertaking, and with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower drafting — just in case — a statement of responsibility for failure, victory in Europe was in sight. But many more were destined to die before it could be achieved.
The hammer blows against the Reich on the Normandy beaches, and in the air and from the sea, were each part of one of the largest military operations ever mounted by mankind. Every Allied nation that had suffered during the war wanted in.
The presence of Belgian or Dutch soldiers or sailors, or Polish or Czech airmen, represented more than just brave fighting men.
They wanted to be there for their oppressed countrymen and for the larger world, making a statement that their nations would rise again. On that day, the phrase “the free world” took on a more profound meaning that has perhaps eroded a bit lately but should always be in our minds on such an anniversary.
This is an opportunity to remember the sacrifice and honor of heroic individuals, some of whom are still living among us. We remember too the dramatic innovation of America’s arsenals of democracy, as in Louisiana’s Higgins boats, originally shallow-bottomed craft for the swamps, that hit the beaches of D-Day.
The nation should also reflect upon the common cause that led young men and women to join the colors and don uniforms for their country over conflicts that would have seemed distant and not very important to most Americans just three summers before.
Why is D-Day still important today?
There are more existential reasons, too, as to why D-Day remains significant to us. “They gave us our world,” said President Clinton, during events observing the 50th anniversary in France.
Sgt. Nathan Rogers, a 23-year-old Army Ranger at the time attending the ceremony, said of the troops involved. “They mean everything to us,” he said. “We wouldn’t have existed if not for them. They definitely set the standard.”D-Day’s significance spans continents and decades. “If any single day can credibly be presented as the defining moment of a century, it’s 6 June 1944, the day of the allied landings at Normandy,” Peter Jennings, who was the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute from May 2012 to May 2022, said back in 2014. “As it was the successful allied landings announced America’s arrival as the world’s leading power, created the basis for Europe’s future wealth and stability, and established the claim that democracy and international collaboration would ultimately overcome totalitarianism.”
At the spot where Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower established the first forward Supreme Allied Command headquarters in 1944, current U.S. Army Europe and Africa commander Gen. Darryl Williams said Eisenhower’s choice to push forward was like the West’s decision to continue arming Ukraine in that it was a sign of hope.
There’s usually a Ukrainian military delegation here as part of the commemorations, but not this year, as they focus on the fight at home, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Ste Mere Eglise became the first French town liberated by Allied forces; its namesake church was made famous by 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the church steeple, leaving him hanging there for two hours during the initial invasion.
“D-Day is a commemoration. I think it’s also a warning,” said Army Col. Marty O’Donnell, spokesman for U.S. Army forces in Europe “While certainly there is not a world war going on right now, we certainly must reflect upon the history as we deal with current events.”
Kersh, 98, added with a sense of humor: “I’m still in the reserve, I’m waiting to go to Ukraine now. Next job.”
On Tuesday, a ceremony took place at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach, which is home to the graves of 9,386 United States soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing are inscribed 1,557 names. Some of those named have since been recovered and identified.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley took part in the commemoration alongside WWII veterans.
The Normandy celebrations were also a chance for Gen. Milley to linger with troops who consider him one of their own, as he winds down his own four-decade military career. The chairman held commands in both the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division, and the Normandy fields, towns and causeways are these divisions’ hallowed ground.
This was Milley’s last Normandy visit as their top commander – and as he walked through Sainte-Mere-Eglise, known as the first town to be liberated from Nazi occupation, attended commemorative football games or spoke at ceremonies, it felt like the general stopped to talk to and give a commemorative coin to every last one of them.
An international ceremony was later scheduled at the nearby British Normandy Memorial in the presence of officials from Germany and the nine principal Allied nations: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, Norway and the U.S. French Minister of Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace were expected to attend.
Many visitors came to the American Cemetery ahead of Tuesday’s ceremonies to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives.
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