Sixty-nine years ago today the combined forces of the United States and it allies waded ashore on the beaches of Normandy. Aside from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, June 6, 1944 has become the defining memory marker of a generation that is rapidly disappearing.
Everyone of age to understand when they heard Franklin Roosevelt’s voice crackle out of their radios to announce the Allied invasion of France knew that three years of united effort were paving the way to inevitable victory.
On that day, the situation was tenuous for a time, but individual acts of heroism—parachuting into St. Lo, scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, or charging machine gun nests on Omaha Beach—ultimately determined the outcome. Beyond those acts of personal courage, D-Day showed the enormous outpouring of America’s industrial might that in three short years provided the ships, planes, and vehicles to undertake the greatest amphibious assault in history.
Those veterans of D-Day who remain are in their late eighties and nineties. They have many memories of long and fulfilling lives, but in the twilight of their years so many of their sharpest memories seem to be of that time long ago when as fresh-faced teenagers they gave their all to a common purpose. Much has been written about their leaders, but it was their individual efforts that made this difference.
The memories of those who fell sixty-nine years ago at Normandy are sacred, but no less so than the contributions of those who served on every front. Sixteen million American men and women served in the armed forces during World War II.
Today, only an estimated 1.2 million are still living and they are dying at a rate approaching 1,000 per day. Some of their memories have been preserved, but the tangible link of their presence is rapidly disappearing.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of D-Day is that nothing is impossible for the American people.
The most amazing transformation in American history may be the 1,366 days between December 7, 1941, and September 2, 1945—and the speed with which the Axis powers were reduced to ruin once the United States entered the Second World War.
During this time, the tremendous outpouring of America’s industrial strength in ships, planes, tanks, and other armaments was exceeded only by the bravery and determination of the nation’s men and women.
They were a “can-do” generation who did not take “no” for an answer. They did not put off until tomorrow what needed to be done today.
We should remember their resolve, honor their commitment, and seek to emulate their example from the factories of America’s heartland to the beaches of Normandy.
Historian Walter R. Borneman is author of numerous books. His latest is "American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution" (Little, Brown, May 6, 2014).