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Lasting lessons from the beaches of Normandy

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Late in the evening on June 5, 1944, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ominously told his wife before they went to sleep, “Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning twenty thousand men may have been killed?”

Churchill’s words echo the stakes involved in the great Allied endeavor to storm the beaches of Normandy. Adolf Hitler’s ultimate defeat required a massive and sustained attack on his western flank, but the assault hinged on a successful operation to capture a beachhead along France’s heavily defended coast. 

As dawn approached on June 6, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the Allied Expeditionary Force into battle with these words: “In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”  

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of this historic battle, it is important to remember not only what took place but also what it means to us today.

Unfortunately, some Americans do not fully realize the significance of June 6, 1944. An entire generation decided on “Service Before Self” and raised their right hands to volunteer to fight in Europe and the Pacific. 

When World War II ended, seven out of 10 neighbors were veterans. Today, it’s two. Less than half a percent of the U.S. population serves on active duty. For us, and many who served, this date is etched in our minds and our admiration for the Greatest Generation will stay with us till our last breath.  

What occurred on D-Day is difficult to adequately appreciate in the 21st-century world. In terms of scale, the amphibious assault was gigantic. Five thousand ships ferried over 150,000 soldiers across the English Channel in 24 hours. 

Thousands more aircraft supported the invasion and ensured air superiority during the most critical phases of the beachhead’s capture. A massive airborne operation was designed to secure the flanks from enemy attack and seize or destroy important road and rail bridges. 

Allied leaders also kept the Germans guessing in order to prevent them from massing their forces at Normandy.  Operation Overlord was a masterful plan, and although its execution was far from perfect, Gen. Eisenhower and his forces achieved their objectives. Within months of seizing Normandy, more than 1 million troops landed to face and eventually destroy the Nazi regime.

But D-Day is also significant in terms of its human aspects. The horror of the beaches is well-documented, and the sands along those shores hold the memories of countless acts of bravery. 

Today, we honor men like Mr. Porter Hughes, Lt. Col. Kevin Childs’ great uncle and a Normandy airborne paratrooper, who jumped near Sainte Mere Eglise, France on D-Day. He was in the Netherlands in Operation Market Garden and in Belgium to repel Hitler’s last stand at the Battle of the Bulge. 

For more than a year, he fought throughout Europe to liberate a continent from evil men. After his tour of duty, he quietly returned home to battle the demons of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He didn’t talk about his combat experience, which was typical for those who saw hell on earth. 

If you saw “Uncle Porter” downtown, you might not know he was a legitimate American and European hero. The successful invasion of Normandy depended upon men like Porter Hughes who put their own lives at stake for the security of the United States and the free world.

So what significance does June 6, 1944 hold beyond a proud memory of our nation’s finest? D-Day should be a reminder of what the United States stands for and what our nation stands against. America stands for freedom and liberty from oppression. It is the foundation of our Constitution, and thousands of Americans have given their lives in the name of liberty. 

Our nation stands against the kind of tyranny that Adolf Hitler employed to place nearly all of Europe under his brutal authority. We must remain ready to contest future tyranny that threatens the free world as it did in 1944.  May we remember the selfless acts of the soldiers at Normandy on this 75th anniversary and honor the freedom they rightfully earned for us that day.

Timothy Murphy, a U.S. Air Force colonel, is a national security affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Kevin Childs, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a national security affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  

Their views are their own and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force. 

Tags D-Day Dwight D. Eisenhower military history Normandy landings Operation Overlord

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