Friday, June 6, 2014

The Longest Day

"It's a hell of a war, but God willing, we'll do what we came here to do.”
                – John Wayne, in “The Longest Day”

Today we mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France.  On the morning of June 6, 1944, after months of planning and preparation, over 150,000 US and Allied soldiers made airborne landings in coastal France followed closely by landings on the beaches of Normandy.  An armada of several thousand ships of all sizes and descriptions had slipped out of English ports in the darkness and crossed the English Channel to the European mainland where four years before Britain had retrieved its  battle-worn troops from the beaches at Dunkirk [Dunkerque].  As the Allied soldiers once again stepped ashore, they were greeted by a murderous hail of machine-gun and mortar fire by deeply entrenched German positions along the Atlantic Wall.  Having fought in North Africa, across Sicily and up the boot of Italy, the Allies and Operation Overlord were finally taking the war back to western Europe for the final push to defeat Hitler’s Germany. 

The expectations of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of all Allied forces, were simply stated.  "You are about to embark on a great crusade. The eyes of the world are upon you and the hopes and prayers of all liberty-loving peoples go with you . . .  Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory."  Later that morning he would broadcast an announcement to the peoples of western Europe, telling them of the landings and declaring, "all patriots, young and old, will have a part to play in the liberation."  Today there are less than five thousand survivors of those who saw action during the initial stages of the Allied invasion.  We owe them, and all of those who died there or have passed on since then, a deep debt of gratitude.  These days we tend to throw the word “hero” around too carelessly.  But these men and women were all heroes in very sense of the word.

My father was part of that effort although he was not involved in D-Day or its immediate aftermath as the Allies attempted to move deeper into France.  He fought in Patton’s Third Army which landed in Cherbourg, west of the Normandy beaches, that July and  then began to move across France just after those who landed on D-Day and shortly thereafter finally achieved their breakout from Normandy.   I knew about that part of the conflict from what my father told me as a young boy when I anxiously asked him “Dad,. What did you do during the war?”  It was not until a few years later that I began to fully understand the momentous importance of what those brave men and women accomplished on D-Day and the long days, weeks and months that followed.

I was thirteen years old when I finally saw The Longest Day, the 1962 Darryl Zanuck-20th Century film based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book on the D-Day invasion of France (Ryan also wrote the screenplay).  It happened to be on the twentieth anniversary of that watershed event of the 20th century as well as my last day of 7th grade.  After our release from school I walked up to the theater on Pack Square, in Asheville, North Carolina, and sat through two complete showings of the three-hour film.  It was my first introduction to that historic struggle to turn the tide of war against Nazi Germany.   Fifty years later this film, despite all of its Hollywood trappings, is still recognized as perhaps the most complete effort to capture on film the scope and importance of that seminal historical event. For those involved in the invasion, it truly was “the longest day.”

So let us take a moment today to remember those living and dead who were participants in that great struggle.  They all did what they came there to do and we are all thankful for their sacrifice.

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