Last night, on the 70th anniversary of the night hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, sailors and airmen set out for the Normandy coast, I began reading Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Light," the third volume of his Liberation Trilogy, tracing the war in Europe from D-Day to the German surrender.
Today, on the Normandy shore, European and American leaders celebrate the success of that greatest amphibious invasion in history with the last survivors of that battle, all of them now in the late 80s or 90s. Commemorations of D-Day have been held every year since then with larger celebrations on these 10-year segments. I recall watching Dwight Eisenhower, by then the former president, walking the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy with Walter Cronkite on the 20th anniversary. On the 40th anniversary, it was Ronald Reagan's turn as he gave perhaps the most moving speech of his presidency, praising "the boys of Point Du Hoc."
These commemorations risk turning mundane, the visual images becoming too familiar to shock. The black-and-white pictures from wartime photographers and the row upon row of white crosses at the American Cemetery have all been seen before. We know what happened there.
What we can't know is the uncertainty of that endeavor. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, was not sure it would succeed. The British, for whom Dunkirk was still a painful, bleeding wound, were doubtful. The Germans had spent four years planning for this day while the Allies found themselves mired in Italy and working to build the ships and landing crafts and airplanes that would be needed for such an invasion. The French coastline was a bastion capable of pushing back a mighty army.
The success of D-Day and the ultimate success of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany testify to the skill of military leaders, the productivity of American industry, which was untouched by bombs and artillery that devastated Allied and Axis factories, the determination of American and British troops and the amazing resilience of the Soviet army on the Eastern Front, where millions of lives were lost. As Atkinson shows in the first two volumes of his trilogy, Allies' experience in North Africa, Sicily and Italy also paved the way for success at Normandy.
On this D-Day anniversary, we praise the dwindling few survivors of that cauldron, and we marvel at the bravery of the men who stepped off those landing crafts knowing their chances of surviving the day were not good.