Major Richard D. Winters (retired): [real life interview with Winters during the filming of the HBO series Band of Brothers where he quotes Mike Ranney on how Ranney answered a question his grandson once asked him] I treasure my remark to my grandson who asked, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” Grandpa said, “No… but I served in a company of heroes”.
It was June 6th, 1944. Overnight, at roughly midnight, 24,000 American, British, and Canadian paratroopers were dropped over Normandy together with a naval and aerial bombardment to prepare the way for the early morning landing of an amphibious assault on the coastline by infantry and armored divisions. Heavy winds blew the amphibious craft off track, and when they made the beaches of Normandy, a scene from hell opened up before them. At Utah and Omaha beaches, the men landed under heavy fire from machine gun emplacements overlooking the beaches and the shore was mined. That, together with the obstacles of wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, made the landings slow and treacherous. Before the day was done, the Germans would lose only 1,000 men that day, and the Allies would sacrifice 4,414 souls, with more than 10,000 casualties in order to gain the foothold they needed for their invasion of the European mainland.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve watched Band of Brothers (my dvd set of the series was actually signed by all of the surviving members of Easy Company in 2006 while they were touring military facilities in Germany), Saving Private Ryan, and countless WWII documentaries in awe of what Tom Brokaw rightly termed “The Greatest Generation”. These were men that had survived the Great Depression in their younger years, only to go and fight in one of the most terrible conflicts our world has ever known. In the years following the war, they would return home to turn the nation’s economy into the economic powerhouse that led to much of the prosperity that we still enjoy today.
However, I think my appreciation of that generation of young American men is overshadowed by that of the people of Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In 2010, I went on what is called a “staff ride” with members of my unit through Belgium and the Netherlands. These are historic tours for military units through battlefields narrated by a military historian, who not only recounts the battle, but also sets the scene with descriptions of buildings that were there at the time and weather on the particular day. It was very interesting, but the one thing that really impacted me the most was our trip to one of the American cemeteries in Belgium. It was probably the most well-kept cemetery I have ever been to. The grass and hedges were trimmed so perfectly, the handiwork of the local townspeople in their appreciation for what our young men did in World War II. We walked through in silence, reading the names of the men and their units. That’s when an older couple that was also walking through the cemetery approached our group. We weren’t in uniform, but it’s pretty easy to pick out American military overseas. They asked us if we were American military, and we told them yes. They both began to weep tears of joy, the man shaking each of our hands, while the lady hugged each of us, telling of how they were children from the closest village during the war and had been rescued by American military men. Though we had nothing at all to do with the events of their rescue, they kept repeating their gratitude to the US and the US military for saving their country from occupation during WWII. The impact of that greatest generation wasn’t just on our country, but upon the whole world, as we fought to liberate people from the tyrannies of Germany and Japan.
Especially on this day, but on every day, let us not forget the sacrifice of these Americans in fighting not just for their own country, but for the countries that fell under the dark oppression of German and Japanese occupation. Though the current occupant of the White House might make apologies for the actions of our military (that actually saved millions more lives that would have been lost in the event of a Japanese invasion) during that time, let us as a people not forget the courage and grit that is really the hallmark of the American spirit, that drove our boys in their quest to snuff out the fires of evil burning around the world and use the embers to rekindle the torch of freedom, by which to lead the people out of the darkness. And though we live in troubled times in this country, it is the rekindling of that American spirit that will see us through to better times, more so than any politician or campaign slogan. So on this, the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, let us cherish in our hearts the memory of those courageous heroes that braved the stormy waters of the English Channel that day. Those boys that charged from landing craft up onto those blood-soaked beaches in wave after wave; one person, part of something far larger, and for something more important.
Go easy, boys, and we’ll see you on the objective!