Several years back, I was hanging out with some friends and the question was raised, “Why were we fighting in World War 2?” I was a bit surprised, so I answered, “Short answer or long?” I think the explanation is even more important as more and more WW2 veterans are dying off and even Holocaust survivors and war crime victims age. A 20 year old who entered the war in 1943 is closer to 100 than 90. A ten year old who was in one of the Nazi death camps and somehow survived would be 85 today, past the life expectancy of every country on Earth.
The short, easy answer, without diving into WWI, was that extreme economic conditions and a power grab by fascists and oligarchs in several countries. An aversion to action by several democratic governments allowed these countries, Germany, Italy and Japan, to conquest with no resistance. By the time resistance was mustered, Germany was staging the conquest of France and planning the submission of Britain. Europe, North Africa and Asia were all under the boot of violent and oppressive regimes. The US jumped into both arenas following the Japanese ambush of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, a devastating one-sided battle they hoped would permanently cripple the US and give them a free hand in the Pacific. 77 years ago, the Battle of Midway would reverse the Japanese upper hand and begin a brutal island hopping campaign that would take longer than the European war. As for the other front, the Allies began pushing back in Eastern Europe, North Africa and later Italy itself would fall to the Allies.
D-Day was the planned invasion of France from England. The Alps in northern Italy prevented an assault on Germany from the South, the Soviet Army was taking the Nazi machine on slowly and brutally across the east, but a two front war would finally destroy Hitler’s armies for good. The issue was the application. 150,000 troops would be involved – paratroopers jumping in the night, getting lost, killed or captured were the first attackers. The bulk of the forces though, after a campaign of deception with false troop movements and fake messages leaked, came across on boats. The hit the shores of France as the German defenders opened fire onto them as the landing craft opened. Men were killed before they took a step. Those that made it off into the shallow sea were drowned by their own gear or shot as they swam ashore. I’ve read accounts of men sitting on the beach holding their own arm or leg, in shock, as they bled to death under machine gun fire.
Amazingly, all the landing points were ultimately successful. The fall of Nazi Germany was sealed, mostly thanks to the incredible courage of everyday soldiers willing to charge into the teeth of death itself. D-Day was and is still, the largest military operation in world history according to our records. For all that we remember, and for what history has recorded on film or paper, D-Day, like all other battles and wars, was fought by men who previously were school teachers, factory workers, fathers, husbands and sons. Some are now names on white crosses and star of Davids in Normandy. Some made it back, never to speak of what happened there and afterwards.
To me, the importance of this day is in remembering the tremendous sacrifice by individuals to resist oppression and as we came to find out, genocide. World War 2 was the most devastating time in world history for the incredible evil and it was overturned, not by words, sanctions or policy. It was turned back with human life and sacrifice by people from towns we have never heard of who fought in places we will never visit or know. That is the legacy of D-Day to me.
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