Opinion Columns & Blogs

D-Day, the most important event of the 20th century, began in France 75 years ago

It is somewhat bittersweet as I write to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the single most important day of the 20th century — June 6, 1944, commonly known as D-Day. World War II was the most important event of the 20th century and D-Day was the most important day of World War II.

The outcome of the war against Germany and Japan, the bloodiest event in human history, determined whether the second half of the century would be dominated by the expansion of human freedom and democracy or of tyranny and repression.

June 6, 1944, was the day it would be determined whether or not the Allies could successfully execute the by far largest and most risky amphibious invasion in military history and establish a strong, secure beachhead in Normandy on the northern coast of France — and from there begin the liberation of Western Europe, and the final defeat of Nazi Germany.

The D-Day invasion, code named Operation Overlord, was a massive undertaking involving over 5,000 ships ranging from battleships to troop carriers, and nine combat divisions of roughly 175,000 troops who would be sent into action on the first day. Five of the combat divisions were American — the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry divisions and the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. Three British divisions and one Canadian division comprised the rest of the initial combat force.

The supreme commander for this daring operation was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who later would be twice elected president of the United States. Planning for the invasion had been difficult because the British were very apprehensive about the idea of a direct assault on the heavily defended French coast. France had surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, so the Germans had almost four years to work on defense preparations and this effort had kicked into high gear in 1944 under the command of famed Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

The invasion date was originally set for June 5, but on June 2, the Allied weather forecasters told Eisenhower that a storm was brewing in the notoriously rough English Channel. On June 4, after thousands of soldiers had already begun loading onto ships, the weather forecast was so bad that Eisenhower had no choice but to postpone the invasion for one day and pray that the weather would improve.

Perhaps it was divine intervention, but on June 5, the weathermen reported to Eisenhower that the weather should moderate for just a few days. Not ideal conditions, but probably manageable. It was a tough and risky decision to make — but Eisenhower gave the invasion order.

Beginning at 11 p.m. June 5, the American and British Airborne divisions began loading into planes for their parachute drops behind enemy lines all along the Normandy coast. The marginal weather badly scattered the paratroopers, but that actually worked out fine because it seemed to completely confuse the Germans as to what the Allied targets and objectives were. The paratroopers did their job well and by dawn the first French town of St. Mere Eglise had been liberated by the 82nd Airborne.

There were five invasion beaches along the Normandy coast — code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Utah and Omaha were the American beaches. Gold and Sword were British and Juno was Canadian.

By pure chance and good luck the wind and currents took the first waves of American landing craft headed for Utah Beach about one mile south of their intended landing zone to an area right between more formidable German defenses. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr., son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, famously surveyed the situation on the beach and declared, “We will start the war from here.” Roosevelt immediately ordered all successive waves diverted to his new beach position and boldly led his men off the lightly defended stretch of beach. By the end of the day, they were five miles inland and had linked up with units of the 82nd Airborne.

However, it was Omaha Beach where the carnage was. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” graphically illustrates the bloody horror faced by the first waves of American troops to hit the beach at Omaha. They had to wade ashore across a long stretch of beach without cover that ran into a sandy bluff that was 100 feet high in places. The Germans had the vitally important high ground, in addition to substantial manpower and firepower advantages, all of which created an almost impossible task for the Americans.

The Omaha landing degenerated into a virtual suicide mission against overwhelming odds. One of the brave officers on the beach, Col. George Taylor, implored his men to get moving and attack by yelling at them, “There are only two kinds of men on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die, now let’s get the hell off this beach.” Several American Navy destroyers, observing the chaos and confusion on the beach, decided to expose themselves to German artillery fire by charging in close to the beach so they could more accurately aim their 5-inch guns on German defenses. One destroyer even ran aground in this valiant attempt to give fire support to the men desperately struggling on the beach.

For half a day the fate of Omaha was in grave doubt. But, by late afternoon, the Americans had defied the odds and were a mile inland. Omaha Beach is a glorious example of what motivated American soldiers under the greatest of duress are capable of doing when they know that losing is not an option.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a nationwide radio address to the country and called for a National Day of Prayer. The Normandy invasion had already begun and the president had received the first action reports before he gave his memorable prayer to the nation that day. This is how his prayer started:

“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

That day, tens of millions of Americans all across the country stopped what they were doing and went to their local churches or synagogues to pray for their family members in harm’s way.

With the element of surprise, and despite over 10,000 casualties, the Normandy beachhead was successfully established by the Allies. By August, Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army was leading the drive across France and moving faster and further than any other military unit in American history. And on Aug. 25, Paris was liberated in what some have called “the happiest day of the 20th century.”

To reflect back to this time period and take note of the almost inconceivable, unrelenting pace of operations is absolutely breathtaking. On June 5, 1944, Rome was liberated by the Americans, and in the Pacific there were three American amphibious invasions in the Mariana Islands in rapid succession — Saipan on June 15, Guam on July 21 and Tinian on July 24. The American “Arsenal of Democracy” was on full display.

It is imperative that we, as Americans, remember and appreciate the honor, bravery and sacrifice that our forefathers demonstrated during these perilous times. So on the anniversary of that day I encourage you to do what I’m going to do. Enjoy your favorite libation and toast to the “Greatest Generation” — and remember the immortal words of President Ronald Reagan at the 40th anniversary commemoration of D-Day in 1984.

He was standing in front of the monument to Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc and speaking to the veterans of the Ranger battalion that had executed one of the most dangerous missions on D-Day. They had climbed the 100 feet tall cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and captured powerful German guns that could have targeted both Omaha and Utah beaches.

Reagan looked at them with tears in his eyes and said,

“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who scaled the cliffs. These are the champions who liberated a continent.”

Eric Hogan is a resident of Tybee Island.