This week’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of France during World War II, is about much more than that single military campaign, important as it was.
It is about understanding why it is fitting to view the generation of men and women who won the war and wrote so many other pages in the history books as great Americans.
D-Day has come to represent not just the allied military landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, but the entire multi-day campaign to gain an armed foothold in what then was Hitler’s Europe. It was a time of peril for civilized human beings determined to crush Nazism. It was a time of enormous individual and collective bravery, too.
Consider the iconic image that has come to represent D-Day. It is a photograph taken from one of the hundreds of landing craft in action that day. American soliders can be seen struggling through waist-deep water toward the beach. In the foreground is the landing craft ramp the dropping of which was the signal to start inland.
For minutes that seemed like hours after they climbed down nets to get into the landing craft, the men could only wait for the horror they knew lay before them. They understood that once they hit the beach, German troops armed with machine guns that fired so fast they were nicknamed “the zipper” would begin mowing them down.
No one knows precisely how many of the U.S., British and Canadian troops, sailors and airmen who went into action on June 6, 1944, were killed. The best estimate, by the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, Virginia, is 4,414.
Ponder that for a moment. Then consider that armed forces from this and other allied countries faced exactly the same kind of danger present on D-Day in hundreds of other places during World War II. Some of those battles are not even in the history books.
In many ways, those who fought then were the Greatest Generation.
They are passing from us rapidly. Of the 16,112,566 American men and women who served in uniform during World War II, only about 496,000 remained alive when the government last did a count, in 2018.
The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing is about more than that one “longest day.” It is about recognizing that the time we have left to learn from World War II veterans, whenever and wherever they served, is growing short. And it is a day to reflect on how much we owe them — and to tell them once again, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you.