NOTE: This post was first published on June 6, 2013.
Today marks the 69th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe at the Normandy beaches of northern France. “To set free a suffering humanity” is how Franklin Roosevelt defined its purpose that evening. Earlier in the morning Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower broadcast to the troops this message:
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade…. 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 … you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, 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…. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle…. Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
Among the young Americans who landed on Omaha Beach in the second assault wave was my uncle Eli Lines. Two days later, somewhere far from home in the French countryside, he would mark his 22nd birthday.
But on June 6, 1944 as he fought his way ashore, fighting for his very survival — to reach dry, safer ground — left behind, he noted, were the bodies of hundreds of dead or dying Americans. The casualties at Omaha Beach alone would number in the thousands. He once told me, “the water was red with blood.” It was in fact the bloodiest battle in American history since the Civil War. The first 21-minutes of the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan vividly depicts the chaos, the suffering, the inhumanity, the bravery. In reality it was far worse, much more difficult than portrayed. No movie could ever do that fight justice.
In 1945 when Eli returned home he like many of his fellow combat soldiers was a changed man, but no doubt a better man forged by unmentionable horror, suffering and sacrifice. One thing is certain, he lived a good and honorable life. My uncle is gone now and around 1000 World War II veterans die each day. Too soon the time will come when they’ll all be gone. But what they did and what they accomplished at those beaches and across Europe and throughout the Pacific — those young men of the Greatest Generation — should never be forgotten.
The Allied landing on the beaches at Normandy marked the beginning of the end of World War II — a conflict of such vast suffering as to defy comprehension. Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson wrote: “This is the greatest catastrophe in human history. There’s 60 million people who die in World War II. It’s a death every three seconds for six years.” In his new book about the liberation of Europe, The Guns at Last Light, Atkinson quotes a German general who called the battle for Normandy “a monstrous blood mill.”
Let us never forget June 6, 1944 …