I was honored to offer the invocation at Colleville-sur-Mer, France, for the seventy-fifth D-Day anniversary memorial ceremony on June 6, 2019. This, of course, is the town name of the place that many Americans know simply by the more infamous moniker of Omaha Beach.
To a French citizen, however, Normandy is the name of the larger region comprising the invasion beaches, airborne drop zones, etc., which the German Wehrmacht had defensively invested as “Festung Europa” (Fortress Europe) in World War II. Before dawn on June 6, 1944, over 130 Allied naval ships, supported by overwhelming air superiority in the skies above, prepared the way for 160,000 troops (principally British, Canadian, and American) to land on five parallel beaches (Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha, and Utah) to establish a toehold on continental Europe and begin the effort to crush Nazi tyranny. However, we moderns must remember that, although this was the largest military campaign ever undertaken in the history of humanity, it was fraught with risk. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was by no means confident of success, as he was attacking an entrenched defense backed by a mobile armored reserve with no more than a one-to-one correlation of forces. Further, the horrible weather and constrained nature of the terrain meant that the Allies could not add more troops to the beachheads. Those who first went ashore would have to pave the path for those behind them, or all would be lost. Put another way, strategic victory depended on tactical victory in this one amphibious operation. And still they came.
The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is located at the top of the cliffs of Omaha Beach, scene of the fiercest fighting on D-Day. The Higgins Boats had to beach at low tide some three hundred yards from the waterline, and American troops of the First Infantry Division and Twenty-Ninth Infantry Division struggled under combat gear, past mines and obstacles, and under murderous enemy fire just to reach the base of the cliffs. Men drowned under the weight of their combat gear; men were shot, or their boats were blown up before they ever reached the shoreline; men were blown apart detonating some of the thousands of mines that littered the beach; men were exposed on the beach to interlocking fields of machine gun and artillery fire; men fought yard by yard up those cliffs to attack entrenched, heavily defended enemy positions. And still they came.
By the end of the day, none of the Allied objectives had been met. The invasion force that landed had not reached the airborne troops who dropped inland the night before and were dangerously exposed to potential counterattack. Shifting tides and high waves forced many formations to land thousands of yards off course, delaying troops from reaching their planned objectives. Rangers remained exposed and surrounded on the heights of Pointe du Hoc, surrounded by German forces, running low on ammunition, and with casualties mounting by the hour. Tank battalions in the follow-on invasion force were unable to land in sufficient numbers to concentrate combat power, and risked annihilation if the Germans concentrated their armored reserve with their larger-gunned tanks. Key cities such as Bayeux and Caen remained in enemy hands that night, facilitating German command and control and strengthening the enemy’s interior lines of communications. And still they came.
Of course, the next five days proved crucial, as the Allies landed a total of 16 divisions by air or sea and eventually achieved the vital foothold on the continent. Yet I am drawn back to that single day, June 6, 1944, and the unrelenting sacrifice of those Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and even coastguardsmen. Were all unswervingly brave? Were all paragons of moral rectitude? Were all motivated only by higher loyalties to God, country, or freedom? Were all so disciplined or controlled in their temper to not kill outside the norms of war? Of course, the plain answer to all these questions is no. And still they came.
This refrain, then, makes the commemoration of this battle so poignant and so remarkable. In contemporary life, society has disassociated sacrifice with its spiritual roots; Normandy will not let us forget that bond. If the men of D-day embodied any virtue above all others, it was this holy virtue of sacrifice. Despite all of the challenges, these men came again and again to fight and die, if necessary, to achieve victory. They simply would accept nothing less. In this single expression of the warrior’s character, these men embodied the noblest and highest of virtues, the willingness to die for another (John 15:13). Whether that other was their friend on their right or left, whether it was an unknown French resident of a village or town, whether it was a comrade in arms from their partner forces or French partisans, they were willing to die for that man or woman. This is why we rightly remember and venerate these warriors, because their willingness to sacrifice even unto death is one of the closest parallels to the sacrificial love of God we will ever see in American history, or the broader history of democratic freedom. Theologically, of course, if we wish to see the virtue of sacrifice perfected, then we must first look to God himself, who in character embodies all the virtues first and thus is him by whom we even know what these are, let alone can strive toward them. However, I am convinced that short of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, Normandy offers us the closest earthly marker of holy sacrifice amongst humanity that we are ever likely to find, certainly in American history. In this way, these men of all faiths or no faith at all enabled the destruction of one of the most hegemonistic and evil socio-political systems the world has ever known, and for that, we rightly venerate them. However, in so sacrificing themselves they inchoately teach us something of the eternal God who stands above and yet entered into history. Thus, just as he came, so still they came.
That is why this single ceremony, this one event, was one of the most humbling and memorable of my over 30 years of commissioned service as an Army chaplain. Certainly, the ceremony had strategic implications involving coordinated messages, global audiences, and the geopolitical relationship of both the United States and France. Certainly, the ceremony highlighted the humble, patient work of the servants of the American Battle Monuments Commission, who each day tenderly watch over every grave in that cemetery and around the world of Americans who have fallen in battle on foreign lands and who remain in those theaters of war. Certainly, the ceremony was a logistical masterwork, requiring immense resources of planning, coordination, and execution to come together in a precisely timed, televised event. Yet I considered that beyond these considerations I had only two purposes: to honor God and to honor these men who came ashore at Normandy 75 years ago and, whether conscious of the deeper meaning of their sacrifice or not, taught and teach us something of the God who continues to sacrifice for us and who calls us to selflessly do the same in fidelity to his example. Meeting with, listening to, praying for, and shedding a laugh or a tear with these men will remain one of the singular high points of my career. And still they came, and so must we if called.
Chaplain (Colonel) Timothy S. Mallard, PhD, is a career US Army chaplain of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and has deployed to combat operations as a Battalion, Brigade, and Division Chaplain. He currently serves as the Command Chaplain, United States Army Europe and Seventh Army in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Photo Credit: US soldiers with Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment scale the cliffs on June 5, 2019, like rangers did during Operation Overlord 75 years ago at Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, France. More than 1,300 US service members, partnered with 950 troops from across Europe and Canada, converged in northwestern France to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Operation Overlord, the WWII Allied invasion of Normandy, commonly known as D-Day. Upwards of 80 ceremonies in 40 French communities in the region took place between June 1–9, 2019, the apex being held June 6 at the American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer. US Army photo by Markus Rauchenberger.