Set into the floor of the massive Arch of Triumph in Paris, perpetually decorated with flowers honoring the dead, is a large plaque in memory of the Allied liberation of France from the Third Reich, a liberation that began with the landings in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of that event, Operation Overlord, the greatest amphibious assault of all time. As we remember the horrors of the Holocaust, we must remember the men who stormed those beaches to end them.
The landing in Normandy was the culmination of months of planning. The forces had to be assembled in Britain, trained and equipped, all in complete secrecy. It was critical to keep the enemy ignorant of where and when the attack would come, for the coastal defenses were already formidable. Mile upon mile of land mines, bunkers, pillboxes, artillery and the landing obstacles called "Rommel's asparagus" awaited the invading Allies.
When the attack began, the men had been at sea for hours, if not days. Many were seasick, and most were heavily loaded with equipment. Inevitably, plans went awry, which often meant that the tanks arrived after the soldiers instead of going first to protect them. Withering machine-gun fire, shells and mines killed many before they ever reached the shore. Especially on Omaha beach, casualties were heavy.
Yet the Allied forces Ä divisions from America, Britain, Canada, France, Poland and other nations Ä did not retreat, did not decide the danger was too great. They prevailed, securing the foothold vital to the final victory.
Try to imagine the kind of courage it must have taken, and the kind of character. I do not believe the Allies could have won had they been motivated by greed or fear or personal fulfillment. Rather, they understood the concepts of duty, and honor, and the conflict between good and evil in the causes for which the two sides fought.
Now, when old-fashioned morals are under daily attack, and we are fast losing our decency, we must remember Normandy for the example it sets. We must strive to be worthy of the price those soldiers paid for our freedom. The enemy they fought was tangible, an outside force threatening to destroy the free world. The enemy we face today is within, and we must fight it with the same courage that let the Allies charge into the Axis fire then.
Of course, such concerns must have been very far from the mind of the private huddled on the wet sand, separated from his unit, trying to find cover and survive long enough to regroup. Likewise, thinking about that battle from our great distance can make it seem almost unreal, merely an account in a history book. We know how important it was, but we have no way to feel its importance.
If one visits the beaches of Normandy, though, D-Day takes on an eerie clarity. I have stood atop a ruined German bunker at the Pointe du Hoc, where, in a diversionary attack, some 200 U.S. Army Rangers under Col. James Rudder stormed up the 100-foot cliffs in the grey light of dawn and fought their way inch by inch into the enemy stronghold. Though fewer than 60 survived, they held the position for 48 hours, alone.
Grass now covers the cratered earth, and a lone obelisk stands over the names of the fallen Rangers, but the shell holes and smashed fortifications remain, left to remind us of the heroism that morning nearly 50 years ago. Now, and in all generations to come, let us never forget.
John Keisling, a math graduate student and the son of a U.S. Army Ranger, remembers D-Day every year. This is his last column of the semester. Read Next Article