Thursday is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. Dignitaries, including U.S. President Donald Trump, will speak of the bravery of the young men who stormed the beaches, part of a mission to stop the march of the Nazis across Europe.
The few soldiers from that mission who remain alive today aren’t likely to speak of bravery or honor. Rather they are likely to talk about simply hoping that they, and their comrades, survived the confusion, the frigid waters, the hail of gunfire.
Crossing the five landing beaches to the relative safety of the dunes, farms and villages beyond took all their attention and strength. An estimated 10,000 Allied troops — from the U.S., Britain and Canada — died on D-Day. More than 150,000 made the crossing from England to France.
“I wanted to survive, and that was the thought going through many minds: survival,” Penobscot Nation elder Charles Shay recalled in a recent interview with Reuters.
He also wanted his comrades to survive. He pulled them out of the surf and tended to their wounds, under heavy fire from the Germans. Shay was awarded a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and France’s Legion d’Honneur for his actions on Omaha Beach.
Shay, 94, has returned to Normandy for the 75th anniversary commemoration.
Like many D-Day veterans, Shay, a medical technician with the 16th Infantry Regiment of the fabled 1st Infantry Division, did not speak of his World War II experience for decades.
“So many dead. So many young men, young boys, killed on the spot,” he recently told The Associated Press. “It was difficult to see and absorb.”
For the generals and others planning Operation Overlord, the audacity — and danger — of the lengthy English Channel crossing and beach assault was evident. For the men who carried it out, the importance of their mission was less immediately clear.
June 6, 1944 is recalled as the turning point of World War II. Before D-Day, Adolf Hitler’s army had overrun much of Europe, the Soviet Union and North Africa. Six million Jews had been exterminated by the Nazis, along with millions of Russians, Poles, gays and other people considered inferior by the Nazi death machine.
“It’s hard to imagine what the consequences would have been had the Allies lost,” Timothy Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, told the History Channel. “You could make the argument that they saved the world.”
“A few months after D-Day, General Eisenhower visited a German death camp, and wrote: ‘We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against,’” Rives said.
A walk across the wind-whipped headlands of Normandy —where German gun batteries still stand and white grave markers stand out against the green grass in the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer — is a stirring reminder of the gravity of D-Day and the importance of its success.
Seventy-five years ago, individual acts of bravery and perseverance added up to an audacious and successful strike against a regime built around hatred and the belief that one race was superior to all others. To commemorate D-Day, we must remain vigilant as those malevolent forces once again seek a toehold in the world today.
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