On the night of Sunday, June 4, 1944, the weather was questionable over southern England and, across the Channel, over Normandy in France. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied forces in World War II, had a decision to make: Launch the invasion of Europe on Tuesday or wait for better conditions.
The forces were poised, primed and waiting to go. The original plan had been to launch what would be the largest seaborne invasion in history on June 5, but the weather was unsuitable. Eisenhower and his advisers consulted the meteorological team and determined the weather window on Tuesday would be the best they could expect. No one wanted to wait another three weeks or so for the perfect conditions.
A window opened, slightly, and Eisenhower seized the opportunity: June 6 would be D-Day.
Aerial bombardment of the Nazi locations began just after midnight. Airborne troops parachuted behind enemy lines to coordinate with the frontline forces when the invasion began. Offshore, 73,000 American troops under the command of Gen. Omar Bradley and more than 83,000 British and Canadians commanded by Gen. Miles Dempsey were ready to strike.
And strike they did.
Naval bombardment of the German defenses began to soften up the resistance. The Americans targeted Utah and Omaha beaches while the British and Canadians to the east targeted Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.
Of all the landing zones, Omaha Beach was the most deadly. German defenders were ensconced on the cliffs above the beach, raining fire down on the Americans as they attempted to make it ashore. Wave after wave of Higgins boats deposited troops ashore; in the early landings, it wasn’t uncommon for none of the 36 men aboard each craft to die just seconds after disembarking. Casualties on Omaha Beach were almost 2,000, the heaviest of all the landing sites.
Bodies — and body parts — littered the beach and floated like driftwood in the waves. Ernie Pyle, the great war reporter, wrote that the ocean waters ran red with blood. And still, the American troops kept pushing forward, establishing first a toehold and then, by the third day, a foothold they could protect.
It’s estimated there were 10,000 Allied casualties over the first few days of the invasion, with about 6,600 of those Americans. They died, not just to defeat Nazi Germany, but, in part, to establish a new world order in which global conflicts such as World War I and World War II couldn’t occur again. From their sacrifices came the institutions of democracy that have kept the evils of nationalism and xenophobia at bay for 75 years.
These men — these boys — willingly died to give us peace and liberty. What must they think of us today as the dark forces that gave rise to fascism in the 1920s are rearing their heads again? How will history judge us if we let their sacrifices, ultimately, be for naught?