Valdosta Daily Times

What We Think

June 6, 2013

D-Day and the Greatest Generation

VALDOSTA — There’s no fully grasping it because there has been nothing to compare within most current generations’ lifetimes. But our eldest generation knows it all too well. They understand it because they lived it and survived it, knowing thousands, millions, did not survive it at all.

Between 1941 and 1945, Americans battled in two theaters with fronts spanning the globe. World War II. Americans fought for the liberation of Europe from the clutches of Nazis and fascists. They fought to halt the imperialistic ambitions of Japan.

In less than a four-year period, an estimated 16,353,659 Americans served in the military. From the U.S. entry into the war through the surrender of Germany then Japan, an estimated 291,557 Americans died in combat, another 113,842 American soldiers, pilots, Marines and sailors died in accidents or from diseases while serving in the military. Nearly a million American troops were wounded in World War II. An estimated 60 million people worldwide died as a result of World War II. Historian David M. Kennedy notes that one in every 100 American servicemen fighting in World War II would die.

On D-Day, which marks its 69th anniversary today, June 6, 1944,150,000 Allied troops assaulted the German-occupied beaches of Normandy. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill feared casualties in the tens of thousands. As a past Newsweek article noted, Churchill openly worried that by the morning of June 6, 1944, an estimated 20,000 Allied troops would be killed.

On D-Day, which represents only one day in the bloody struggles of World War II, approximately 3,000 troops died while invading Normandy. It is a number that is the rough equivalent of the number of people who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Upon hearing that 3,000 had died rather than tens of thousands, according to Newsweek, Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed with relief, “Thank God!”

The results of American soldiers’ efforts saved the world from Nazism and imperialism. There would be other challenges, but there are always new challenges which each generation must face. Though they fought for freedom and the American way, the late historian Stephen Ambrose may have given the best answer as to why they fought in his book, “Citizen Soldiers.” He wrote that many American G.I.s feared failing their comrades more than they feared dying. Through numerous interviews of World War II veterans, Ambrose argued that they fought for one another more than they did grand ideals of government policy or theories on epochal wars or nation states or the triumph of democracy over fascism or for the glory that surrounded names such as Roosevelt, Eisenhower or Patton. They fought for the Smiths and Joneses, the Leibowitzes and Grosmans ... They fought to help their fellow Americans in the field with the fondest hopes of returning home to the ones they loved.

Though thousands died, thousands more survived. As the decades accumulate, millions have passed away since World War II ended in 1945.

On this, the 69th anniversary of D-Day, one of the best ways we can remember the “Greatest Generation” is by taking time to thank, appreciate and learn from those who still survive.

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