Several years ago, children visiting the U.S. Capitol were asked about the meaning of Memorial Day. Many responded that Memorial Day was the day that the pool opened. As a parent, this answer doesn’t particularly surprise me—nor does it particularly worry me. Childhood should be about pools, picnics, and play. But as adults, it is important that we honor our veterans, because as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “A nation that does not honor its heroes will soon have no heroes to honor.” On June 6th, the anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, we have the chance to honor veterans of WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, for their role in defending freedom.
Seventy years ago, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany. 2,500 Americans lost their lives in the first 11 hours of fighting, but by the end of the day the Allies had gained a foot-hold in France and began marching across Europe to defeat Hitler. Over 209,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded, or went missing during the Battle of Normandy. The casualty rate was lower than expected, given that the Allies were attacking straight into the teeth of fortified positions, but every husband, uncle, brother, and son killed was precious to this nation.
Some of the most moving D-Day commemorations are conducted by the people of Normandy. Last week, a friend, Dr. Holly Walton-Buchanan, visited Normandy and experienced first-hand the gratitude of the French who have not forgotten our role in their liberation, or forgotten the 60,000 American soldiers laid to rest in French soil. She went expecting to be informed; she left profoundly moved by the magnitude of our national sacrifice and by the appreciation of those liberated, as symbolized by a memorial she visited in the town of Ste. Mere Eglise. The memorial honors the 15,000 U.S. forces parachuted into Normandy to protect the western flank around the town. As the paratroopers fell, the night sky was lit up by burning buildings, illuminating their descent. The parachute of one solider, Private John Steele, got caught on a church steeple. Hanging there for hours, Steele was eventually captured by the Germans. He later escaped and rejoined his unit. If you have not seen the retelling of this event in the 1962 movie, “The Longest Day,” I recommend it; the movie may help you come closer to understanding the horror, confusion, and sacrifice of America’s finest on D-Day. Today a uniformed mannequin hangs from a parachute on the steeple, in honor of the American liberators.
The number of living U.S. veterans who fought in France is in sharp decline, and many of them will not see the next D-Day Anniversary. Now is the time to seek out and thank these veterans for their service—before it is too late to personally express your gratitude for all they have done for this country, and for the world.