Seventy-two years ago, Allied troops waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. The night before, on June 5, American airborne forces had landed on the western flank of the invasion area near Sainte-Mère-Église, while British airborne forces secured the eastern flank and Pegasus Bridge. They jumped out of C-47 Dakota transport planes, through darkness and into glory. Private John Steele of the 82nd Airborne landed on the steeple of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église. He managed to survive by playing dead.
Today a visitor to Sainte-Mère-Église can observe a mannequin representing Steele hanging from the church tower. Inside the church is a stained glass window of the Virgin Mary surrounded by American paratroopers.
On Utah Beach—all of the landing sites had code names—fifty-six-year-old Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (the oldest son of former president Teddy Roosevelt) landed about a mile away from his intended target. When asked whether to re-embark the 4th Infantry Division, he simply said, “We’ll start the war from right here!” Prior to the landing, Omaha Beach, had received an abbreviated naval bombardment from ships such as the battleship Texas lasting only 35 minutes.
The bare stretches of beach offered no cover for the American invaders as German machine guns from fortified gun emplacements swept the beaches. The U.S. Rangers, who had trained earlier on the cliffs of Dorset, scaled the sheer cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc while being shot at by German soldiers. Their mission was to destroy artillery pieces targeted on the landing zones. Their commander was Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder. Unknown to Rudder’s Rangers, most of the artillery had already been moved by the Germans. They held their position for two days in the face of fierce counterattacks by the German’s 916th Grenadiers. At the Ranger memorial at Pointe du Hoc, one can still see massive craters created by the Allied naval bombardment.
With the D-Day landing, the Allies achieved a remarkable strategic surprise over the Germans. On June 6, Rommel was in Germany celebrating his wife’s 50th birthday. Hitler was persisting in the mistaken belief that the Normandy invasion was a feint and that the real blow would be struck at Pas de Calais.
Imagine if an operation like the Normandy landing were to occur today in the age of social media! Interactive polls would ask: “Which beach do you prefer, Normandy or Pas de Calais?” Could all the members of the 101st Screaming Eagles, painted in Indian war paint with Mohawk haircuts, be counted upon not to post their pictures on Facebook? That seems doubtful.
This June 6, raise a glass and toast the heroism of all those young men who fought to liberate America’s oldest ally from Nazi occupation. Without their service and sacrifice, our world might be a darker place. General Patton may have summed it up best when he said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
Christopher Kelly is co-author of “America Invades: How We’ve Invaded or Been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth.”