My 92-year-old father remembers it, 70 years ago. Before the assault began, this displaced young man from Oklahoma stood on the British coast and all he could see was a steady, unbroken horizon of ships. My father, in the Army Air Corps, had heard rumors. But seeing the scale of what was about to happen was an image imprinted on his memory to this day. It was D-Day, June 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the key to toppling a regime that grows in vileness the more you learn about them. That day nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels and 277 minesweepers crossed the English Channel with 875,000 soldiers hitting the beach by the end of June. It was a logistical nightmare and a huge gamble. Rick Atkinson’s The Guns At Last Light: The War In Western Europe, 1944-1945 (2013) describes it:
Nautical twilight arrived in Normandy on June 6 at 5:16 a.m., when the ascending sun was twelve degrees below the eastern horizon. For the next forty-two minutes, until sunrise at 5:58, the dawning day revealed what enemy radar had not. To a German soldier near Vierville, the fleet materialized “like a gigantic town” afloat, while a French boy peering from his window in Grandcamp saw “more ships than sea.”
If you’ve read Atkinson’s book or seen the brutally graphic opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan you know June 6, 1944, was a chaotic, murderous day for those storming the beach. As Atkinson and others have said, the Allied invasion plans were wildly optimistic for the first day. Plans called for the capture of Carentan, St. Lô, Caen and Bayeux and all the beaches connected. It didn’t happen by a long shot, but soldiers did what soldiers do. They soldiered on. A recent PBS special graphically illustrated what Atkinson notes, that the Allied air bombardment meant to soften up the German defenses had virtually no impact.
There are lots of ways to make some connection with this key moment in U.S. and world history. The USS Texas, better known to Texans as the Battleship Texas, played a part in D-Day. Working in unison, the crew of the Texas fired more than 255 rounds of 14-inch shells in just 34 minutes. The 17-by-9-foot battle flag that flew on its mast June 5 is now on public display for the first time since World War II in an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. If you’re headed to Washington, D.C., this summer, a new documentary, D-Day: Normandy 1944, is now playing at the National Air and Space Museum’s Lockheed Martin Imax Theater in Washington and the Udvar-Hazy Center’s Airbus Imax Theater in Chantilly, Va. Closer to home, in New Orleans, the National World War II Museum is having a variety of events to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. New Orleans was the location of the company that designed and produced the Higgins boat, the amphibious landing craft used extensively in the D-Day invasion. Even closer, the Military Museum of Fort Worth at 712 Dorothy Lane has exhibits from a vast collection and the staff is knowledgeable about military history. The museum currently has an exhibit on the 90th Infantry Division, which had two battalions at Utah beach on D-Day. Call 817-945-2680 for more information. Admission to the museum is free, but donations are encouraged. Combat Reels, a local company affiliated with the museum, has recently re-mastered its first series of World War II films, many from D-Day. The films are not your stock History Channel shots, but rarely or never-before-seen footage from the conflict. www.combatreels.com The significance of June 6, 1944, can never be imprinted on the minds of those who weren’t there in the same way it was for those who witnessed or participated in the events, as my father’s recollections attest. But there is one thing we can do: We can soldier on, trying to understand