On June 6th, 1944, 156,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy. And so we officially mark today as the 74th anniversary of D-Day, the massive Allied invasion that turned back the Nazi sweep of Europe in World War II. But it was called “The Longest Day” for more reasons than one. This wasn’t the kind of battle that ends at sundown.
A 50-mile stretch of the French coast had been divided into five sectors that Allied commanders planned to take separately, and then join. But by the end of the first day, only two had been joined. It took six more days of intense fighting before the entire beach was unified under Allied control. And that was just the toehold to begin the long march across Europe.
There were at least 10,000 Allied casualties on D-Day, and tens of thousands more were wounded. Among those who survived, there are fewer each year who are still alive to tell the tale. One soldier who landed on Omaha Beach that day, James Gabaree of the 5th Ranger Battalion, said he and his fellow soldiers were young when they went over there, but they came back as old men, if they came back at all. I’ve walked on those beaches and stood at attention at the flag ceremony in the US cemetery in Normandy. Few moments have caused me to reflect more soberly on the sacrifice of those brave men than to see the thousands of graves lined up ever so neatly in the well-kept cemetery.
There was nothing neat or orderly on June 6, 1944. It was pure, deadly chaos. But despite a hail of gunfire coming at them, those brave soldiers kept coming off those boats and moving forward. They did their duty to liberate Europe from Hitler and his war machine. Looking back at age 91, D-Day veteran Jacob Cutler of Long Island told Newsday, with the humility typical of the Greatest Generation, “We were 19, 20, 21 years old, kids sent to war. But we did the job.”
Once the heroes of World War II are no longer here to tell their inspiring stories, it’s up to us to preserve them, to read them to our kids and pass them on to future generations. Americans must never forget their incredible courage and sacrifice in saving the world from one of the greatest evils mankind ever faced.
If you can’t make it all the way to France to pay your respects to the heroes of D-Day, then consider taking your family to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. You can learn more at NationalWW2Museum.org.