It was a day, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, when “the pride of our nation” began a battle that would “set free a suffering humanity.”
It was a day, as President George W. Bush observed decades later, that ended with bodies and blood and Bibles on the beaches. “Our boys carried in their pockets the book that brought into the world this message,” he said. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
It was a day “when history tipped toward the camp of freedom,” as President Francois Mitterrand of France recalled before his death.
It was D-Day. And the more time that separates us from that pivot-point moment in history, the clearer it becomes how unique that day and the men who lived it were.
General George Marshall’s orders to General Dwight Eisenhower were at once simple and yet staggering: “Cross the Channel, enter the heartland of Germany and free the continent of Europe.” To do so, Ike hurled 160,000 men, 6,000 ships, 2,300 planes, and 840 gliders at a place called Normandy.
As the beaches turned red with blood, FDR asked the American people to join him in prayer. Noting that America’s sons were fighting “to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization,” he asked God to “lead them straight and true.” He knew what they faced was terrible. “The darkness will be rent by noise and flame,” the president explained. “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war…They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong.”
Indeed, the U.S. invasion force lost 2,500 dead in the first 24 hours. (By way of comparison, we have lost 2,381 troops in Afghanistan—in the span of 15 years.)
I knew two of Ike’s men, two who helped liberate Normandy, then France, then Europe. Together, they embodied the American fighting man of World War II, giving flesh and bone to Churchill’s desperate dream after Dunkirk—that “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, will step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”
One was the son of a physician, a city boy who grew up in the middle class of Middle America. In keeping with his family’s Irish roots, he was a devout Catholic, a lifelong Democrat, and a liberal in fullest, finest sense of the word—he believed in freedom of religion and thought, openness and opportunity, the need for community and the power of reason. He attended the University of Notre Dame as a young man, but he had to leave college and a promising golf career to take care of his family after his father died. There was no time for “finding yourself.”
When war came, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. On D-Day, he was in a C-47, towing gliders over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
He never cursed. In fact, if someone said something off-color, he would leave the room. Even though he had to grow up fast, he had a childlike innocence about him always. He used to quip that he didn’t find out the big secret about Santa until he was deployed to England.
Like so many of his generation, he was optimistic and patriotic, stoic and humble. There wasn’t a trace of pride in him. In fact, when friends would ask what he did to earn the medal his wife insisted on displaying in the living room, he would say, “The Army gave me that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” Then he’d grin, take a sip of beer and change the subject. No one ever pried that secret from his humble heart.
Likewise, modesty, patriotism and optimism were hardwired into the other D-Day Everyman I was blessed to know. But the similarities ended there. He was a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Texas. He was anything but stoic. He could yell and curse with best of them. And he was a lifelong Republican. A conservative in the fullest, finest sense of the word, he was committed to preserving the traditions, institutions, and ideas that make America a good and great nation—equality of opportunity, limited government, free enterprise, individual liberty, the rule of law. He wasn’t much for religion, but he respected people with convictions—and had contempt for hypocrites.
He entered the Army Air Force just out of high school. On D-Day, he punched through Fortress Europe in a glider, courtesy of a C-47. He brought back more nightmares than medals—images of Dachau and dead buddies, starving civilians and crash landings. But the nightmares didn’t poison him. Or more accurately, he somehow learned to cope with the poison.
No one knows if Al Dowd’s C-47 was towing Willard Eason’s glider in the predawn darkness of 6 June 1944. But I like to think that these men were tethered together, if only for a moment, as they stormed into the unknown to carry out General Marshall’s orders. That’s because these D-Day Everymen were my grandfathers. I get my first name from Grandpa Dowd and my middle name from Grandpa Eason.
A New World
Like so many of their generation—we lose 430 World War II veterans each day—both of my grandfathers have passed from this life to the next. Yet their story has some resonance beyond my family because of what these men were, what they became, what they accomplished.
Some 405,000 of the men my grandfathers fought alongside never had a chance to become fathers or grandfathers, never started a family or finished college. FDR eulogized them as heaven’s “heroic servants.” But those who survived the war would forge a new and better world for us. They returned home optimistic, patriotic and confident that they could accomplish great things—because, after all, they already had.
My Grandpa Dowd raised five sons and started a business from scratch. From the most modest of beginnings—three friends selling medical supplies out of their cars—it grew into one of the largest medical-supply firms in the state. He employed hundreds of people over the decades, knew each by name and counted each as a friend.
My Grandpa Eason raised two kids, went to college on the GI Bill, worked on a factory line, invented a revolutionary blood-testing device—in his garage—and then built a global company that one day merged with the German firm Boehringer-Mannheim (now Roche). Just think about that. My grandfathers and their generation changed the world so much that after killing each other in two world wars, Americans and Germans were doing business together.
I disagree with the notion that D-Day’s heroes were ordinary men who did extraordinary things. No, they were extraordinary men who did extraordinary things. They were extraordinary, quite simply, because there aren’t many like them. Yet they walked among us without pretense, like silver-haired Clark Kents—further evidence of just how extraordinary they were. Some say it’s wrong to put men like this on a pedestal, but I say it’s wrong not to. We need them there to remind us of the price of our freedom and our way of life. What John Adams said of the Revolutionary Generation is true of the World War II Generation: “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.”
Re-labeled the “Greatest Generation” in recent years, the World War II Generation doesn’t have a monopoly on greatness, of course. The spirit of Utah Beach and Omaha Beach lives in every American who has answered when civilization called for help—in Korea and Vietnam, during Operation Vittles and Operation Tomodachi, on the Fulda Gap and 38th Parallel, in Kuwait and Kosovo, Baghdad and Bosnia, Afghanistan and Abbottabad, Somalia and Syria.
That brings us back to today. D-Day still offers lessons for those with eyes to see.
First, deterring war is preferable to the alternatives. Two-thousand years of history illustrate that peace through strength works. It’s far less costly in treasure and blood than scrambling to respond to aggression or rescue fallen countries or recover lost freedoms. Just compare the costs of deterring the Red Army with the costs of Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Normandy, Okinawa, Dresden, Dachau, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima. After bearing those costs, my grandfathers’ generation would not to repeat the mistakes of earlier generations. It remains to be seen if we will follow or forget their example.
Second, when deterrence fails to dissuade revolutionary regimes or death-wish dictators or mass-murderers masquerading as holy men, we must understand that some things are worth fighting for—or against. Those who are fighting our enemies today protect us from an evil as insidious as Hitler. No matter what federal agencies or White House aides say, we’re in the midst of a just and necessary war. As in 1944, it’s a battle for our way of life, for civilization. Too many of our countrymen fail to grasp this.
President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Normandy speech points a way out of today’s murky moral relativism. After talking about all they had won and all they had lost, Reagan turned to a handful of D-Day veterans and asked, “You risked everything here. Why did you do it?” Reagan knew the answer. “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next,” he explained. “It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.”
Third, America remains the indispensable nation. Today, even more so than in 1944, no country enfolds the full spectrum of power and embraces universally appealing attributes like the United States. No matter what the declinists say, this confluence of strengths gives the United States an edge in the 21st century. No matter what the isolationists say, this confluence of strengths gives the United States a special responsibility to serve as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. And no matter what those who long for a “post-American world” say, this confluence of strengths makes America exceptional.
That leads to a fourth lesson from D-Day. Americans have a right to be proud about yesterday—and a reason to be optimistic about tomorrow. Sadly, the patriotic optimism of the World War II Generation is something many of their children scorn and many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren simply don’t understand. With their blood, treasure and ingenuity, the heroes of World War II built “The American Century.” It didn’t happen on accident or by magic. They worked hard and tried to do what was right. They were just and merciful and humble. And they left the world better than they found it.
“The day will come when no one is left who knew them,” the younger Bush observed. “The day will never come when America forgets them.”
I knew two of them, and I will never forget.
Alan W. Dowd is a contributor to the digital and print editions of Providence.
Photo Credit: Troop carrier Douglas C-47s tow Waco CG-4A gliders during the invasion of France in June 1944. U.S. Air Force photo, via National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.