Commentary: D-Day 75 years later – Glory never fades

Above the Pointe du Hoc cliffs of Normandy, several United States presidents have commemorated D-Day anniversaries. Of those, perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 40th anniversary speech is most remembered. Partway into his speech, President Reagan asked the question of the courageous American and allied troops who landed, flew over, parachuted in, or served on Navy ships actively involved in the invasion: Why did they do it?

The story of the June 6, 1944 invasion never gets old, even as the veterans who fought there do. Only one such crossing of the English Channel during wartime was previously successful, and that was the Roman conquest of Britain in 1066. Two years before Normandy, an allied attack at Dieppe after a similar crossing turned into a disaster. This history weighed heavily on Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower and Operation Overlord commander General Omar Bradley.

During the lead-up to the Normandy invasion, a number of challenges presented themselves. The always-unpredictable weather in England made it difficult to predict the ideal conditions needed for the landing. As it turned out, the Allies landed on the only day in June 1944 when there was a full moon.

Further, maps misspelled locations and proved somewhat inaccurate for various landing sites. While there was sustained pre-bombing of Normandy coast sites, it did little to damage hardened observation bunkers or to displace the giant howitzers aimed at the Atlantic.

Though the numbers vary, the size of the invading force was awesome: 677 naval ships of various kinds, 24,000 paratroopers, and 160,000 troops from America, Britain, and Canada, assisted by military personnel from at least a dozen other nations, including China.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

That 2.5 percent of the invading force troops were killed on the first day masks the human element and the enormity of the sacrifices made. For instance, of the five main landing sites, the Americans at Omaha suffered the highest casualties by far. That occurred despite the early success at Pointe du Hoc, the highest location between Omaha and Utah sites, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled 100-foot vertical cliffs to take out guns which further threatened the Omaha area.

While the plan was for a quick linking of the Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc with troops from the other landing sites, reality intervened. Instead of being relieved after their immediate mission was completed, the Rangers had to fight on their own for two days, losing more than half of the original 225 personnel.

As it turned out, it took a week after the June 6 landings for all troops to link before joining the next phase of the Operation Overlord. By late July, when the latter operation was completed, 26,000 Americans had given their lives for the cause. But by this time, the Allies outnumbered the Germans by 4-1 in France, and General George Patton’s Third Army began their dramatic dash across France and Belgium on the way to Berlin.

Clearly, the D-Day invasion of occupied France was the key to victory in the European campaign during World War II. Accordingly, especially on such an important anniversary, it is appropriate to give extra attention on Memorial Day to World War II.

However, the answer to President Reagan’s aforementioned question is the same regardless of the conflict: the men and women of the military serve for love of each other and country, for loyalty, for faith, and the belief in something greater than themselves.

As flags fly and gravestones are visited and military-themed movies are watched, we need to give thanks and remember the day when the forces of good triumphed and freedom’s march became inevitable.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. In 2015, Dr. Hoff was awarded honorary membership in the Delaware Society of the Cincinnati. He served as ROTC director at DSU from 1993-1999.

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