Will D-Day lessons be lost to history?

Thursday, June 6, 2019

“She can’t take much more of this, captain!”

It turns out the traditional Scots engineer transported to the 23rd century for the original Star Trek series could take quite a lot, himself.

Seventy-five years ago today, future “Scottie” James Doohan stormed Juno beach with the Royal Canadian Artillery, taking out two snipers before being wounded with six bullets from a German machine gun. He lost part of a finger, but a silver cigarette case in his pocket stopped a bullet from piercing his heart.

David Niven was a lieutenant colonel in the British Commandos, helping keep commanders informed, Yogi Berra manned a naval support craft, firing rockets at enemy positions on Omaha Beach, future civil rights activist Medgar Evers served in a segregated black unit delivering supplies to the beachhead, author J.S. Salinger stormed Utah Beach on D-Day, director John Ford lead a team of Coast Guard cameramen filming a documentary for the Navy, but the footage has disappeared because of the number of Allied casualties it showed.

Nebraskan Henry Fonda was a quartermaster on the USS Satterlee destroyer and Obi-Wan Kenobi actor Alec Guinness was an officer on a landing craft transporting British soldiers to Normandy.

But the vast majority of the 100,000 Allied fighting men who survived the invasion went on to live ordinary lives, happy to have the chance at a mundane existence, suppressing guilt for having survived while so many of their companions did not.

The brochure, “Normandy, 6 June-24 July 1944,” prepared in the U.S. Army Center of Military History by William M. Hammond, described this day, 75 years ago, like this:

“A great invasion force stood off the Normandy coast of France as dawn broke on 6 June 1944: 9 battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, and 71 large landing craft of various descriptions as well as troop transports, mine sweepers, and merchantmen-in all, nearly 5,000 ships of every type, the largest armada ever assembled. The naval bombardment that began at 0550 that morning detonated large minefields along the shoreline and destroyed a number of the enemy's defensive positions. To one correspondent, reporting from the deck of the cruiser HMS Hillary, it sounded like ‘the rhythmic beating of a gigantic drum’ all along the coast. In the hours following the bombardment, more than 100,000 fighting men swept ashore to begin one of the epic assaults of history, a ‘mighty endeavor,’ as President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it to the American people, ‘to preserve our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity.’

“The attack had been long in coming. From the moment British forces had been forced to withdraw from France in 1940 in the face of an overwhelming German onslaught, planners had plotted a return to the Continent. Only in that way would the Allies be able to confront the enemy's power on the ground, liberate northwestern Europe, and put an end to the Nazi regime.”

Perhaps you grew up hearing World War II stories from your father or grandfather, or perhaps they left the tales of loss and sacrifice to their wives and sisters.

Sadly, the opportunities to hear those stories are rapidly disappearing, with fewer than half a million World War II veterans still alive.

We can only hope and pray the lessons learned on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, as well as leading up to and following the invasion, are not lost to the present and future generations.

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