When one contemporary service member dies in a far-off place like Iraq or Afghanistan, an entire state grieves. It’s the appropriate response, too, since it is so painful to see these young heroes fall as they fight for democracy and freedom.
Imagine, however, more than 4,000 servicemen dying on the same beach and on roughly the same day. That was the death toll among American, Canadian and British soldiers and sailors on D-Day, the Allied invasion of western France that led to the victory over Nazi Germany.
Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which began before daybreak on June 6, 1944. President Trump and other leaders are in France to mark the solemn occasion, likely with speeches about sacrifice and freedom.
And was there ever a larger sacrifice in the name of freedom?
In the dark before sunrise, paratroopers began landing behind German lines. Many were scattered from their units or entirely alone in the dark. At 6:30 a.m., the largest amphibious landing in history began. Allied forces concentrated on a 50-mile stretch of coastline in Normandy, France, facing an enemy that had months to prepare, fortifying the beaches with guns, concrete bunkers and fortresses.
Certainly, that added to the unease the young Allied soldiers and sailors must have felt in the hours leading up to the attack.
The operation – albeit bloody, with more than 10,000 Allied casualties overall – was a success, allowing the Allies to get a tenuous toehold that over the coming days and weeks widened. In less than a year, Germany surrendered.
D-Day was the pinnacle in a battle between good and evil. Before D-Day, Adolph Hitler ran amok, overtaking countries, gaining wealth and killing Europeans with cold ruthlessness. Nazi Germany murdered approximately two-thirds of the European Jewish population – as many as six million people.
Without D-Day, there was no sure way to stop it. Only troops on the ground could end the Nazis’ reign and the young American, Canadian and British servicemen – many of whom weren’t much older than 18 or 20 – knew it.
When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to Americans in a radio address on June 6, 1944, he called it a “poignant hour.”
“They fight not for the lust of conquest,” Roosevelt said of the men making the attack. “They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.”
Today, on this 75th anniversary, the young men who fought to end conquest are mostly gone. Those who remain are in their 90s and the opportunities to honor them are dwindling.
A report in the Herald on Memorial Day weekend noted that only about 1,000 World War II veterans are still alive in North Dakota. In Minnesota, the number is about 10,000. The remaining men who rushed ashore in Normandy 75 years ago today must be miniscule.
But they are out there, and today, we marvel at their bravery. Also, we thank them – and all veterans – from the bottom of our hearts, for undertaking these incredible tasks and ensuring freedom not only at that time, but also today and for generations to come.