It was bravery in its rawest form.

63 years ago allied forces began the invasion of Europe at the beaches of Normandy. It was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s lust for domination.

Facing them were millions of mines, heavy artillery in fortified bunkers, machine guns, mortars, and thousands of soldiers – the Atlantic Wall. Germany, under the leadership of Field Marshal Rommel, had been preparing for the moment for years, and had invested in the philosophy of annihilation at the beach. Rommel’s goal: to drive them back into the sea.

The pre-invasion bombardment was largely ineffective. The soldiers were told that their biggest challenge would begin well inland, because there would be nothing left near the beaches after the bombs did their work. They were wrong.

One of every two soldiers in the first wave became a casualty (Ambrose). Withering, enfilading fire covered the ingress routes, making it nearly impossible to move forward, and near suicide to stay put. Going back was not an option. At Omaha – the worst of the five beaches – some companies were virtually wiped out. Dead and wounded soldiers littered the beach. Those who did make it ashore were dazed, weaponless, and mostly leaderless.

But slowly, improbably, men began to move. The boys who had never seen combat climbed the bluffs, tossed grenades, and fought hand-to-hand to get off the beach. At first only a handful were successful, but others were inspired to follow. The trickle became a stream, and the stream became a torrent.

The allies would never look back.

What possesses men to face such daunting odds and prevail? How do soldiers even function after witnessing so much horror? How did they muster the courage?

Maybe it was the character that sits deep within the American soul, waiting to emerge when the need is greatest. Maybe it was comeraderie that compelled them to move forward together, or the training. I can’t tell you.

But they went in nonetheless. Those children of the depression, those citizen soldiers changed the war and changed the world. We owe them our gratitude, because to them we owe our freedom. And from them we inherited our future.

(The D-Day Museum (now designated the National WWII Museum) is located in New Orleans.)


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