I will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in Great Britain. The day is the culmination of a week of remembrance in this country, which had been at war with Germany since September 1939, when D-Day took place.
This year, on Sunday, June 1, the BBC broadcast an hour of hymns from various cathedrals to commemorate those who had been engaged in World War II and all conflicts. Televised interviews with veterans of the invasion of France, both British and American, have been featured daily. Interviews have been interspersed with news footage of the planning and execution of the landings on the beaches of Normandy. The affection of the English for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower is evident in the commentaries. The vital role of supplies of food, fuel and armaments from the United States is highlighted.
During WWII, I followed the war closely. Uncles and cousins were drafted into service early in the war. Their heavily redacted letters were circulated among our extended families. Because of military censorship, the letters often told us little more than the writer was alive and uninjured. My relatives returned safely. Those who had been in combat spoke little of their experiences and only after many years. Like most veterans they returned home, resumed work or began college studies under the G.I. Bill.
Newspaper, radio and newsreel accounts of the war allowed us to follow, often inaccurately, the progress of American forces battling across North Africa, Sicily and into Italy. Postwar accounts would provide a more detailed account of setbacks and casualties that, during the war, were shielded from the general public. Coverage of the Pacific theater highlighted victories in the Battle of Midway and in the initial counteroffensives for control of Japanese-held islands.
On the home front, we bought war bonds. When a Spitfire airplane touring the South made an emergency landing at my hometown airport, crowds showed up for an impromptu rally to purchase more bonds. We had rationing coupons for shoes, butter, meat and gasoline. We collected newspaper and scrap iron for drives at our schools. We knew when Gold Stars were placed in the windows of homes of servicemen killed in action and of one soldier missing in action, although he would return at war’s end. My friends and I played outdoor war games and watched every war movie that came to town. But we were always on-lookers.
Planning for D-Day had proceeded in great detail for two years while complex, bloody battles were fought in the two theaters. An intricate intelligence operation gathered data and analyzed countless aerial photographs. A campaign of deception was implemented to confuse the enemy as to the site of the invasion. Bad weather in the English Channel led to a postponement of the invasion for a day. With meteorologists predicting a brief gap in stormy conditions, Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for June 6.
Thousands of American and British soldiers landed in France before dawn by parachute and by glider. Casualties were high. Forces were scattered. Many plans did not materialize. Scattered groups of soldiers coalesced, created mayhem behind enemy lines and held key objectives, including vital bridges.
American forces landed at Utah and Omaha beaches at daybreak. Despite intense bombardment, enemy fortifications held. Casualties were extremely high for soldiers exiting landing vessels, sometimes in waist-deep water. More than 4,000 soldiers would perish on Omaha Beach. More than 10,000 were wounded or missing. Command structures faltered. Only a small fraction of tanks and supplies reached shore. In the chaos of that grim day, the courage, pragmatism and stubbornness of small groups of warriors were the difference between gaining a beachhead and calamitous defeat.
At the end of the day, a broad, irregular beachhead had been established. American casualties for D-Day included 2,500 deaths and 6,000 wounded or missing. Fierce and costly fighting in Europe would continue until Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s wartime prayer commemorates the men and women of our armed forces who serve in all conflicts: “Dear Lord, lest I continue my complacent way, help me to remember that somewhere, somehow out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I then must ask and answer, am I worth dying for?”
Contact Clif Cleaveland at firstname.lastname@example.org.