Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy by American and Allied forces. Termed the greatest armed invasion in military history, it was a turning point in a war whose influence looms large over Western Civilization to this day.
If you’re a younger person, your understanding of the significance of this day is probably limited to what you can recall from school or a Steven Spielberg movie. For our elders — who can remember the very real threat of the Third Reich and how unsure the outcome of World War II was during that time — the details of that bold assault remain emblazoned on the heart and mind.
D-Day is one of many such crucial junctures in the history of our culture — instances where the freedoms we now take for granted could’ve very well been lost — moments which revealed the latent possibilities of the people of the West, our potential for greatness that seems so sorely lacking in our jaded and indifferent present age.
If the horror and triumph of D-Day remains lost on you, do yourself a favor: go watch the opening scene of the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Then remember, this actually happened.
There are many things that Hollywood can sensationalize to make them seem more dramatic but, in this instance, the film falls far short of the reality. As appalling as the death and devastation is depicted, we are removed from the sheer terror by the safety of cinema. We know marquee celebrities Tom Hanks and Vin Diesel aren’t actually ducking real machine-gun fire. We know the bullet-riddled boy screaming for his mother is just a talented actor, performing a poignant scene. So the horror is safely at an arm’s length. But for the 175,000 young men who were actually there — and the 12,000 dead, whose blood stained the English Channel red — the sacrifices of D-Day are all too real. June 6, 1944 changed not only the course of the war itself, but the future of this nation.
Many of the best and bravest of Rusk County were there on that day. From my own hometown of Overton is Billy Strange, who fought with the 101st U.S. Army Airborne Division as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. It was just another stop on a brilliant military career for Strange. Strange would eventually return home with a Purple Heart (with three clusters), Bronze and Silver Stars, as well as various other awards and commendations during his time in Anzio, Bastogne, North Africa and the invasion of Germany.
I remember talking with him about D-Day for a research paper in high school. I asked him the foolishly obvious question, “Were you scared?” But his response caught me off guard: “I was scared, sure, but not of getting shot or dying. I was scared of the mission failing. I was scared of the Germans winning. I was scared for everyone back home we were fighting for.”
Can a man still be brave if he’s scared? Yes, of course. Indeed, that is the only time a man can be brave. Men like Billy Strange and his “band of brothers” were the very definition of courage during D-Day. Not because they were devoid of fear but because, despite their fear, they planted their feet into the blood-sodden shores of Normandy beach and faced down what was — at that time — the most powerful army the world had ever seen.
The stakes could not have been higher. The success or failure of that bold assault would mean the difference between Nazi tyranny and the liberation of Europe. As Gen. Omar Bradley later said, the invasion force was a “thin wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore” on D-day under fierce enemy fire. A successful invasion of Europe would mean Germany could not win the war. Failure would have given Adolf Hitler time to use his new weapons and to divide the fragile alliance arrayed against him. Few days in history have meant so much to the future of mankind.
There are so many stories of D-Day from the countless lives it touched — across the world and right here in Rusk County — but the greatest story is how a generation rose to the challenge that day, and did what had to be done to preserve the lives and liberty of countless others they would never know.
For those of us living now, free to share the blessings purchased by the pain and suffering of those who came before, there is only one command.