Why we remember D-Day and the fight for freedom

Why we remember D-Day and the fight for freedom
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Today’s ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy, France, likely will be among the last times that men who were there will bear witness to the commemoration. As the World War II generation passes from the scene, it is more important than ever that we acknowledge how their trials, triumphs and tragedies from the Second World War have shaped our world.

We remember D-Day at Normandy because it was the decisive turning point of the war. Gen. George Marshall’s assessment was correct: the only sure way to eliminate Adolf Hitler’s regime was an Allied amphibious invasion of northern Europe that would lead to a campaign into the heart of Nazi Germany. But it is easy to forget what it took to prepare and be ready to launch such an operation.  

At home, it required the mobilization of the entire population, with women working in the factories, marginalized ethnic groups asked to work and fight, rationing implemented for all, and children and the elderly participating in Victory gardens and scrap metal, blood and bond drives. Militarily, it took over two and a half years to expand and train the U.S. Armed Forces to more than 11 million Americans in uniform by 1944.  

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From 1942 we had fought ground campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and were engaged in a bombing war out of England, all designed to weaken Nazi Germany and ease the pressure on our Soviet ally fighting on the eastern front. We had to prevail in the battle of the Atlantic over the German U-boats to amass more than a million troops and supplies to launch from Britain, and had to master diplomacy and compromise with our allies because no single nation was strong enough to defeat the Nazi Empire on its own.

And yet, it might all be for naught if we had failed on D-Day in Normandy.

Part of what makes D-Day so memorable are the long odds we faced. Although they did not know exactly where and when, Hitler and the Germans knew that we were coming. Under the leadership of Gen. Erwin Rommel, they poured resources into Hitler’s Fortress Europe, building defenses across the shorelines of northern Europe where landings could be expected.  

If the German defenses could drive us back on the day of the landings, then Hitler would be in a favorable position to negotiate a separate peace with Joseph Stalin and, knowing that the Soviets faced two more years of combat on their own, Stalin likely would take a deal — after all, he and Hitler had done so before, in 1939. Political support in the United States and Britain would erode, and pressure would build for us to sign our own separate deals with Hitler. The Nazi regime would survive, ruling continental Europe from the Atlantic to Eastern Europe.     

We remember the courage displayed from our highest leaders to our common service members involved in Operation Overlord, and their stories always will continue to inspire. Students should know about Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s masterful command, and his decisions to initially delay the invasion because of weather conditions, and then launch through the window of opportunity on June 6, 1944.  

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Students should learn about Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s decision on Utah beach to fight from where his troops had landed, even though they landed off-target. They should know about the magnificent assault that Lt. Dick Winters and Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment conducted on German positions at Brecourt Manor.  

Most of all, students should know the stories of soldiers such as the 19 young men from the small town of Bedford, Va., in Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment who died in the first wave attacking Omaha beach that morning. They should know how war affects families through stories such as the Ehlers brothers from Kansas. A young veteran of the North African and Sicily campaigns, Walt Ehlers landed in Normandy on D-Day, and received the Medal of Honor for actions taken a few days later at Goville, France. His brother Roland was in a different landing craft headed for the beach on D-Day when it took a direct mortar hit. Roland never made it to the beach; Walt found out about his brother’s fate a month later. Today, Roland’s hat and Walt’s bible are on display at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

It was this unforgettable spirit of courage and sacrifice that made the D-Day landings at Normandy a success, opened the way for the Allied campaigns to Berlin, and ultimately ended the Third Reich. In doing so, we were saved from the world that Hitler was attempting to forcibly impose. In that world, Hitler’s tyranny would have stamped out democracy across the Old World, and his poison would have reached into the Americas. In that world, the Holocaust would have escalated and intensified.  

But history did not happen that way. Backed by the loved ones they left at home, the Allied citizen soldiers bled, died and successfully fought across the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 75 years ago, to secure a pathway for a better future for democracy and humanity. We must always remember the price they paid to create that pathway, and remember that we still travel it today.             

Keith Huxen, Ph.D, is senior director of research and history for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Follow on Twitter @WWIImuseum.