Remembering D-Day: June 6, 1944

Walking with canes and traveling in wheelchairs, the elderly “stormed” the barricades during the government shutdown last fall. How ridiculous and insulting to even try to deny these men access. These elderly were veterans well into their 80s and 90s visiting the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Some of them were the same men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France exactly 70 years ago on June 6, 1944. If the Germans couldn’t stop them back then, certainly a silly government barricade of tape could not hold them at bay. Even though many years have passed since that momentous assault, we as Americans should not forget.

Dying at a rate of over 1000 men a day, fewer and fewer World War II veterans are alive. The memorial in Washington, D.C. was designed and built to honor the sacrifices of the men and women of “the greatest generation.” An organization called The Honor Flight Network brings veterans and family escorts from across the country free of charge to visit this memorial.

Last October one group of elderly veterans, many from Mississippi, had come to visit but found the barricade preventing their entrance. Disappointed, they achieved their objective just like 70 years ago, and crossed over to their intended destination. The silly politics of pretending that government funded personnel were even needed in the open-air site did not work.

In the words of one visiting veteran, “It’s unfortunate that this is what happens when they know there are busloads of veterans coming down here, and they don’t have the good sense to keep the damn thing open.

These are the guys that created it!”

In June of 1944, the Allied Forces planned and executed the invasion across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy in northern France to liberate Europe and defeat Nazi Germany during World War II. Commonly known as D-Day, it was a turning point in the war, but came with great loss and suffering. June 6, 1944 is a date that should not be forgotten and certainly not by those with a relative who stormed one of the beaches.

“You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months,” were the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower 70 years ago.

Eisenhower continued, “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

According to The National Museum of WW II, the “D” used in the term “D-Day” is an alliteration or code designation of the word “day,” just as the letter “H” is used for “hour,” both of which are used for any important military operation. Additionally, plus and minus signs such as D-4 or D+7 mean four days before a D-Day and seven days after a D-Day. Consequently, any major assaults have had their own D-Day, or important operation dates. The museum notes that in World War II alone there were also D-Days for the Pacific, North Africa, and Italy.

Nonetheless, due to eventual success leading to the end of the war, most people associate “D-Day” as the event solemnly remembered this month. Officially part of “Operation Overlord,” the beginning of the assault by Allied Forces to liberate Western Europe, “Operation Neptune” refers to June 6, 1944.

The fall of France in 1940 to Nazi control and occupation came at a great price. The balance of power in Europe changed and gave Hitler strategic points along the Atlantic coast of France.

According to the book “World War II The Definitive Visual History,” French citizens were deported to death camps and hundreds of thousands were forced to work in Germany for the German war effort.

“France suffered 90,000 dead and 200,000 wounded, and 1,900,000 soldiers had been taken prisoner or were missing one quarter of the country’s young male population.” according to this source.

The war continued in Europe with Germany’s “blitz” and bombardment of British cities in 1940-1941. The United States entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. From the outset, it was understood that Germany could only be defeated by Allied Forces entering mainland Europe.

From the same book, “Preparations should be made for an invasion of Europe across the English Channel and that there would be a build-up of US forces in Britain for this purpose.”

The beaches of Normandy were chosen as the invasion and liberation sites. Five were selected and codenamed Sword and Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Omaha and Utah (American). With relatively less German resistance and other conditions, the beaches other than Omaha achieved quicker success and had fewer losses.

Omaha’s cliffs, underwater obstacles and heavily defended beaches caused great loss. More exposed to the weather, many tanks sank off-shore and those men who made it to the shore were “pinned down on the beach.”

One survivor, quoted in the “Definitive Visual History” book said, “I didn’t have any idea of how deep it would be and it took me a while to find my feet.” He described helping a fellow soldier in the water by pulling him from under a ramp in the water, preventing the man from being steamrolled by the landing craft. Out of the surf, a mortar shell landed behind him, killing and wounding nearly the entire mortar section. He said, “Germans are shooting at me. Bodies lay still. Some were crawling as best they could. Others tried to get back to their feet, only to be hit again by enemy fire.” As noted in the book, while attempting to secure this beach area, nearly 3,000 Americans were killed or injured.

Make it a good week by remembering this date in our history and all the men who stormed the beaches or served in World War II. Respect those that are still alive.

My father, a World War II veteran, died about a year and a half ago. I used to drive him to the grocery store. He would shuffle along picking up his favorite items and be a bit slow in the check-out line. I saw the irritated looks of some younger folks behind him. I wanted to say, “Have a little patience. This old man went off to Europe when he was 18 and among other things, helped to liberate concentration camps.” Our nation helped free others from the “freedom of fear” as said by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eisenhower said, “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.”

Note: Mark your calendars for the Civil War Living History and Battle Reenactment to take place August 15-17 at the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum. It will be a weekend full of activities.

Mary Burns Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Comments on this article may be directed to livestyles@observertoday.com