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Eighty Years After D-Day




This week marks the eightieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Eighty years ago the armada of the Allies crossed the English Channel & began the bloody brutal march from Normandy to Berlin.


The Allies --Americans, Brits, soldiers of the Commonwealth Countries, Free French Fighters, remnants of armies that had already been overrun by the Nazis, and others-- had begun what would become the final push to retake Europe in July of '43 with the invasion of Sicily. By January of '44 the Allies were landing at Anzio. Allied survivors of Anzio called the bridgehead "hell" or the "Devil's backyard."


Historians still argue about whether or not General Patton really growled the words, "a plan is only good until the boots hit the beach" when he heard about what was happening at Anzio a week after the landing. Anzio was a beachhead into mainland Italy. In retrospect the Allies' victory seems assured --we don't like to imagine a world where the Nazis won. We don't like to imagine a world with a "negotiated peace." But, few, if any, of the victories of the Second World War were easy. Anzio could have gone the other way.


The planning for the D-Day invasions was shaped by the bloody shadow of Anzio. The Allies couldn't afford to get pinned down on a beach again. In June of 1944, when the boots hit the beaches in Normandy, the plan was to push and push hard. Everyone involved, the soldiers who'd fought in WWI and were coming back to France for a second time, the officers, the privates, the American teenagers who'd been through training but never experienced combat, the hardened British veterans who'd survived Dunkirk and the hard years since, the bi-lingual French-American women who were standing by to act as translators if and when the Allies took the French telephone system, knew that D-Day was going to be bloody. Even if the Allies won, even if they made it off the beach in less than 48 hours, it would be a victory paid for in blood.


D-Day was a victory for the Allies. It was a victory, strange as that may seem to say, for humanity. American historians refer to the Second World War as the "good war." It was a war the United States fought against Nazis, fought against imperialist aggression, and fought against genocidal tyrants.


Most of the survivors of the Second World War have already left us. Some died on bloody beaches eighty years ago today. Some survived the war, survived the '40s, the '50s, the '60s and the twentieth century.


My grandfather's boyhood best friend died somewhere between Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather, by contrast, lived well into his eighties despite a life that included cigarettes, alcohol, and every transfat he could find. War cuts apart lives, leaves question marks behind. What could have been? What would have been? What was the alternative?


Today dignitaries are making speeches, and some of the last survivors are paying their respects to their fallen brothers.


Eighty years is a lifetime, if you are lucky. If you are lucky enough to know someone who was there, ask them today, what their lives were like before that day.


The teenagers who landed on Omaha Beach were survivors of the Depression. They'd grown up in a world that seemed to be falling apart. If you were twenty in 1944, you grew up during the Great Depression. You grew up in a world with political storm clouds gathering, you grew up in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of the 20th century, and somehow you ended up being labeled the "greatest generation."


I never knew my grandfather's long-dead best friend. He was a picture in an album. A beautiful young man forever young, bright eyes and muscles bursting with life hanging out on the beaches of New York in the last years of the Depression, pulling stunts to impress the girls.


We never know our fates. We usually don't understand our future until it is past. But, in the late 1930s, a lot of "experts" thought the western world's best years were past. Kids growing up in the Depression weren't supposed to expect much. Just having steady work was an accomplishment. The Allies changed the future eighty years ago. For some, it meant there would be no future. I look at the photograph above taken on a working class beach in New York at the tail end of the Depression and I see two men who thought they'd be friends forever. I see three kids scraping by and having a good time in the Depression. I see a man whose life took a different turn on a different, bloody, beach a few years later. And I see another man who lived until he was nearly ninety. I see America. Maybe that is why dignitaries visit graveyards in France, Italy, Luxembourg and a few other places. Because America is there.


History is like an unmapped river. We'll never know if the roughest water is behind us, or ahead of us.


In 1938, those bright young men on a beach didn't know what the future held. They were just trying to impress a pretty girl. In June of 1944, all those men on landing crafts didn't know what the future held.


If you are lucky enough to have a survivor of the war in your life, take this opportunity to ask about the war, and the lives that went before & after.



~Sarah Nagle

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