David Closson is FRC's Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on June 6, 2020.
Seventy-six years ago, with the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance, Allied forces launched Operation Overlord, one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. On June 6, 1944, under the direction of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, approximately 160,000 soldiers landed along a 50-mile stretch of fortified coast in northwestern France. After a day of fierce fighting, the Allies secured a hard-fought victory and a foothold in Europe. The battle proved to be a turning point in the war.
To appreciate the magnitude of the Allies’ achievement, some of the facts and figures of “D-Day” are worth revisiting. The battle began shortly after midnight when 2,200 Allied bombers conducted airstrikes on German military installations and barracks. After the initial bombing, 24,000 paratroopers and glider troops landed behind enemy lines to secure bridges and exit roads. By dawn, the amphibious invasion had begun, and by the end of the day, more than 160,000 troops (including 73,000 Americans) had landed on the beaches. More than 5,000 ships and landing craft and 11,000 aircraft were used in the invasion.
Although the Normandy campaign would last until Aug. 21, the highest single-day loss of life occurred on D-Day. An estimated 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British, and 946 Canadians died during the June 6 invasion. Over the next three months of fighting, the Allies sustained heavy causalities, including 72,911 men who were either killed or went missing and 153,475 who were wounded. On the German side, more than 240,000 men were either killed or wounded. Between 13,000 and 20,000 French civilians perished as well.
While the magnitude of losses is difficult to quantify, a visit to one of the five American cemeteries in northwestern France provides a sobering reminder of the human cost of liberating Europe. I will never forget my visit to one of the large American cemeteries in the summer of 2013. The Normandy American Cemetery is located near Omaha Beach, where some of the fiercest fighting took place. This cemetery is the final resting place for 9,388 Americans, most of whom gave their lives on D-Day as the Allies fought to secure the beachhead.
Several aspects of the cemetery are striking. First, the sheer number of white marble crosses covering the cemetery’s 172.5 acres illustrates the high cost of war. Seeing the resting place of so many servicemen makes an immediate and indelible impression, much like a visit to Arlington National Cemetery would.
Second, it is remarkable to observe the names and dates on the grave markers. I was a 22-year-old college student at the time of my visit, and I was surprised to discover how many of the buried soldiers had been younger than me when they died. Standing before their graves, it was moving to consider how many lives were cut short, how many dreams were never realized, and how many families never saw their loved ones return. The “Wall of the Missing,” a wall at the cemetery bearing the names of 1,557 service members who were declared missing in action in Normandy, produces similar feelings. Most of these soldiers were lost at sea, and their bodies were never recovered.
On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan spoke movingly to a group of Ranger veterans who had scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc to secure the strategic high ground overlooking Omaha and Utah beaches. He spoke about the bravery of the Allied forces and the moral rightness of their cause. The president said, “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity.” He continued, “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.”
Reagan’s words are worth reflecting on, especially as recent polling reveals that half of Americans under 40, and 43% of Americans overall, indicate an openness to socialism. It is sobering that so many people would willingly give up freedoms that previous generations paid a high price to protect.
On the eve of the invasion, Eisenhower told the Allied soldiers that “the hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” Today, as the remaining veterans of what has been called the “Longest Day” continue to quietly pass away, it is vital to remember the service and sacrifice of those who bravely stormed the beaches and fought to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. As Reagan reminded us, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It has to be fought for and defended by each generation.”
As the United States faces new challenges in 2020, may the courage exhibited 76 years ago on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, on the beaches, in the air, and off the coast of Normandy inspire a new generation of freedom-loving, American patriots.