Friday, June 06, 2014

D-Day Plus Seventy

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven for these many months. 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.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has greatly reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God on this great and noble undertaking.

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Order of the Day, 6/2/1944

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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 on 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.

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, handwritten note of a message to be released if the landings failed

That is the price of liberty. Vive la France!

-- Contre-Admiral Janjard, Free French Navy, giving the order to bombard the French coast

Will someone tell me how we did this?

-- Colonel James Rudder, Ranger commander, at Pointe du Hoc twenty years later

It's a fair question.

Mine is slightly different: Where do we find these men?

Without fail, every generation of Americans has stood forward to the call. And I do mean without fail. I can remember being worried about our country's future, back in the early to mid 1990s. I looked at the younger generation, teenagers then, and they looked feckless and mostly useless. I despaired of them rising to meet any challenge ... then 9/11 came, and they surprised the Hell out of me. As useless as they looked, they grew into fine, strong men and women.

Seventy-odd years ago, it was my father's generation's turn. In early 1939, America had about 300,000 men under arms. We barely had an Army. That changed in December of 1941. The attack happened on the 7th, a Sunday. On Monday the 8th, recruiters had as much business as they could handle. And so the work began, turning civilians into soldiers. Accustoming men to had been used to doing their own thing to routine and discipline. There was exercise and hardship to develop their bodies, and other forms of training to focus their minds. They always knew, even from the start, that they'd have to invade continental Europe. They also knew they'd have to put paid to Imperial Japan, more or less at the same time. They didn't know how just yet, they just knew they'd have to do it.

Amphibious assault wasn't new ... except as a matter of scale. The invasion of Europe was the most complex undertaking in human history to that point, perhaps equalled by the construction of the Great Pyramids, but not surpassed. Before the men could even begin to assault the beaches, stupendous amounts of weapons, vehicles, and supplies had to be amassed in England; and plans drawn up to ship those ashore. The raid on Dieppe early in the war showed that capturing a port intact probably wasn't going to happen, so they had to develop a work-around for that. And, at the same time that they were assembling such amazing amounts of stuff that a blind man could see the invasion coming, they had to deceive the Germans as to where the blow was to fall. They sold a bogus Army to the Germans, aimed at the Pas de Calais, while the real invasion was targeted for Normandy. The kicker was that the fake Army was under the command of General George S. Patton, probably the one American commander the Germans actually respected. Maybe not as an equal, but as a near-equal. That sold it: they bought the deception hook, line, and sinker.

They originally wanted to go in May, but the weather wouldn't cooperate. It looked like the weather wouldn't cooperate for June, either ... but in the late hours of June 5, they got a lucky break. The storms would let up for the morning of the 6th. Eisenhower wasn't totally happy with the odds, but he was even less happy about waiting another month. He didn't much like it, but didn't see any other option but give the order: Go.

Assault transports, destroyers, and battleships stood out to sea. Transport aircraft stuffed to the gills with paratroopers took off, followed by other transports towing gliders. The finely-honed plan went cubist almost immediately, with the airborne troops dropping all over the target zone, and landing craft missing their mark by as much as a mile. It didn't matter. From the commanders ashore like Norman Cota and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., to the common private, everyone improvised to the utmost to do the most important thing that day: break the Atlantic Wall. Get inland. Establish a foothold.

It was a near-run thing, especially on Omaha Beach. But all five beaches were secure by the end of the day, thanks to the skill and courage demonstrated by the British at Gold and Sword, the Canadians at Juno, and the Americans at Omaha and Utah. It would be a while before enough strength amassed ashore to break out, but with the Atlantic Wall ruptured, the Germans would be unable to do a single thing about it.

But none of that answers my question: Where do we find these men?

I think the answer is ... we find them everywhere. Because in a real sense we don't find them. They find themselves. Free men, given the liberty to choose, see their home in danger, and refuse to let anyone else do their job.

This, of course, leaves us with a very important question, one that I'm not sure we've ever answered adequately.

Are we keeping faith with the sacrifices they've made on our behalf?

I look at the VA ... and I am ashamed.

Surely, we can do better. Surely, we must do better.

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