Destined to spend their last desperate hours on the beaches and cliffs of Normandy, they died as Americans. The sheer scale of the sacrifice borne by those brave men is staggering. Because of their extraordinary valor, America stood singular and tall in the saddle. It was her finest hour and for that we must be grateful.
General Mark W. Clark, whose Fifth Army led the capture of Rome in June of 1944, was the last of the fighting World War II field commanders to die (at age eighty-seven in 1984). He never doubted the importance of the role America played in the liberation of Europe. Nor the idealism that moved so many of his fellow countrymen to take up arms in defense of a continent that lay prostrate for five long years beneath the boot of Nazi tyranny.
If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: All we asked was enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead.
Of the dozen or so cemeteries scattered across Europe where the remains of America’s fallen heroes may be found, the Memorial at Omaha Beach is surely the most moving, its nearly two-hundred acres covered with the crosses of over nine thousand soldiers, including their 149 Jewish comrades, whose graves are adorned with the Star of David. Destined to spend their last desperate hours on the beaches and cliffs of Normandy, they died as Americans; which is to say, without distinction of creed, color, or condition, enfolded forever as brothers in a common cause. And should you decide to visit the American cemetery in Normandy, as I and my family recently did, which stands gleaming and white upon the hill high above the wide and now deserted beach far below, and walk row by row through all those lovely marble graves marking the spot where so many young men are buried, it will break your heart.
The sheer scale of the sacrifice borne by those brave men is staggering. Not only were thousands pinned down by withering machine gun fire coming from hidden bunkers embedded in the hills high above the beach, but so many young lives were lost even before reaching the line of shore, their bodies washed up by the sea. So bloody and chaotic a mess was the battle for Omaha Beach that General Omar Bradley, who commanded American ground forces in what became the largest and most ambitious amphibious assault ever mounted in human history, very nearly ordered an evacuation. Such was the level of carnage along the disaster-strewn beach that by midday he was prepared to believe the worst—that his men “had suffered an irreversible catastrophe,” and the German positions simply could not be overrun. It was only later, of course, on learning that the attack had indeed moved further inland that he began to hope the outcome might be different.
And as everyone now knows, the fabled Atlantic Wall, which had been so carefully constructed and massively maintained by the armies of the Reich, once breached, could mean only one thing: Germany had lost the war. D-day was, without doubt, the single most decisive military engagement of the Second World War. All that followed was really only a series of mopping up exercises pursuant to persuading the enemy to lay down its weapons; which Germany definitively did, less than one year later, on May 7, 1945, leaving the Thousand Year Old Reich in ruins.
But who could possibly have known any of that on the morning of June 6, 1944, when wave upon wave of American infantry hit the beach, inching its way ever so tenuously up the most heavily fortified coastline in the world? Surely not the soldiers of the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions, who fell by the thousands before finally breaking through what had clearly been designed as an absolutely impregnable series of coastal defenses. “It is on the beaches that the fate of the invasion will be decided,” observed the famous Desert Fox, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, whom Hitler had personally dispatched to the scene, ordering him not merely to hold the line but to repel the invaders, throwing them all back into the sea. “The battle belonged that morning,” as Gen. Bradley was later to express it, “to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the channel coast of France.” Who would not retreat, would not cut and run, despite every possible obstacle arrayed against it. As Colonel George A. Taylor bluntly put the matter, reporting from the very thick of it: “There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!”
And so they did, enough certainly to turn the tide by nightfall when the whole embattled beach was finally wrested from a tenacious and unwilling enemy.
What Winston Churchill, on the eve of the Normandy Invasion, had declared to be “much the greatest thing we have ever attempted,” had in fact succeeded; and the road to Berlin lay open for a final, albeit bloody, Allied push to victory. As Captain Charles Cawthon was later to put it, speaking with prophetic eloquence of the battle in which he fought alongside so many other brave young men:
Then it all came down to this brief first day of battle on the coast of Normandy and, for so many of them, it all ended. For the rest of us, what has been since has not been the same.
Nor has it been the same since for anyone else, either, thanks to the huge and far-reaching debt of gratitude we owe to both—to those who made it and, alas, those who did not—inasmuch as the world we inherited from their heroism is a far freer and more humane place than it would otherwise have been had America lost the battle for Omaha Beach. How different the world would be had Germany succeeded in holding that coastal line! England might not have survived the devastation wrought by countless V-1 and V-2 rockets fired from forward launch sites left undisturbed by a failed D-day operation. And France? Would her liberation have taken place two shorts months after D-day? Not a chance. The terms of her shame and subjection would continue unabated for God only knows how long. And what about the Jews? How many more would have perished in gas ovens owing to the Allied failure to bring Hitler to his knees? Not only Jews but Catholics and Protestants, too, whose voices would perhaps have fallen silent were all Europe to remain Nazified.
In short, D-day was one those battles that, much like the Greeks fighting the Persians on the Plain of Marathon five centuries before Christ, became a game-changer. Had the Persians won, the future of the West as we know it would have lost the civilizing leaven provided by Athens. And the light of reason having thus gone out, who would light it again? Or, much nearer to our own time, the Battle of Saratoga that, had we lost it to the occupying British army in 1777, would surely have prevented the founding of the American Republic. And where would the Free World be without America to keep the peace?
Only now, of course, it is very much in the air whether America still regards it as her mission to spearhead the peace, particularly in the teeth of the terrorist threat posed by a radical Islam relentlessly on the march. Are we still willing to shoulder that burden, or has the nation undergone a crisis of confidence in its capacity to carry the day? The answer is not entirely clear. But this much I do know and it is beyond proof: that because of the extraordinary valor shown by so many young men on that distant beach more than seventy years ago, America stood singular and tall in the saddle. It was her finest hour and for that at least we must be grateful.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (August 2016).
This essay was first published here in June 2017.
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The featured image shows the US Army 2nd Infantry Division marching up a bluff at Omaha Beach. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.