Dawn of D-Day, and you are there

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Tomorrow, after three-quarters of a century, we’ll pause to remember and reflect on the Allies’ D-Day invasion, when the greatest force ever assembled for good rallied in a last-ditch, all-in effort to defeat the Third Reich.

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower led what would be recorded as the largest invasion in history. An armada of nearly 7,000 ships and landing craft delivered 156,115 U.S., British and Canadian troops to five beaches — codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — along a 50-mile stretch of northern French coastline. The sailors and soldiers faced extremely long odds against the heavy fortification of Hitler’s imposing Atlantic Wall. Some 4,414 Allied personnel would give their last full measure of devotion on D-Day.

The weather was lousy. The invasion’s dress rehearsal had gone badly. A campaign to disinform the Nazi high command had no guarantee of success. And both sides of the conflict were, at this point, worn thin from a long and costly conflagration that had infected its way across the globe. Certainly there was hope. But no one knew for sure whether this awesome undertaking would prove to be the turning point toward Allied victory or whether it would be recorded as the gravest military disaster in human history.

War, as has been noted, is hell. We must and should go beyond that truth, however, in search of a greater one. We must engage our collective imagination and envision the terrifying chaos of close combat that the men on the beach that day experienced.

To hear the staccato burst of enemy machine guns. To smell the acridity of gunpowder and feel the grit of sand. To imagine the inescapably awesome percussion of incoming enemy artillery. To perceive the incessant thrum of 2,395 aircraft streaking across skies strewn with white-hot projectiles. We imagine the shouts — and, indeed, the screams — of comrades in arms, of best friends, of brothers, some of them lucky, some of them fallen, many shot to ribbons. Two days after this historic landing, the first Allied cemetery in Europe would be dedicated.

Our vision of D-Day must not end there.

Tomorrow we are obligated to consider, to the extent of our imaginations, the enormous responsibility and emotional toll that these brave men, from Eisenhower to the lowliest private, must have felt. We must never forget nor lose sight of the fact that simply because events turned out as they did that they were fated to do so.

They were not. All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. The Allies did something. And they did it big.

The possibility of not just defeat but disaster was imminent. Ike knew it. He knew it all too well.

The general sent an upbeat letter to the troops in advance of their invasion, laying out the stakes, reminding them of their duty and wishing them the best of luck.

But it wasn’t the only message he wrote.

On the eve of the invasion, Eisenhower also drafted a message in case it failed. We all would do well to learn from its selfless temperament and tone.

Here it is:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

That’s the message of D-Day. It’s not about the vainglorious exploits of war or the egos of commanders. It’s not about the number of ships or of the various battle lines on a faded map of the European theater.

It’s about those who were there and what they did for us. It’s about the fact that they could have lost the last hand with all of humanity’s chips on the table. It’s about the troops — just kids, really — who were far from their homes and families, scared out of their minds and ordered to risk their lives on a madcap run to take the world’s most heavily fortified coast.

The military personnel who landed on this now-sacred stretch of sand fought in our place to secure the cause and blessings of liberty from an enemy who sought to obliterate it. Our task as we remember this anniversary is to remember that we, like they, have a responsibility to duty. To each other. And to the future.

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