70 years ago this morning thousands of 19 year old kids were being killed on the beaches of Normandy. Two of my mother’s brothers were there along with my wife’s grandfather, who died two weeks later.
I read books about it, watch the grainy newsreels, listen to the dwindling group of survivors tell their stories, and yet my mind cannot fathom such a thing. Even Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s epic retelling, with its powerful, almost unwatchable opening twenty minutes fails to fully expose the horror that those terrified young men faced on that gray morning. Yet, face it they did.
I try to imagine what would happen today if our government were required to plan and execute something as grand and intricately detailed as D-Day. In late 1943 in a practice run for D-Day called Exercise Tiger, over 900 men were killed either by friendly fire or submarine attacks of a ship which had wandered off course. Of course, back then the debacle wasn’t leaked to the press so it was largely kept from the public. Today, with social media and ubiquitous cell phone cameras, that would be impossible. I can’t imagine any modern President being able to overcome such a public relations disaster.
Luckily for me, my Dad was on a troop ship headed for the South Pacific on this day in 1944. Had his vision been a bit better, he could have been one of the boys storming the beaches that day, and depending upon which unit he was in, his chances of survival might not have been so good. Of course, had he died that day, this blog would be just a bit more vapid and uninspired than usual.
I’m not one to go overboard on this “greatest generation” business. I mean, my Dad’s generation did accomplish an awful lot and didn’t whine about their lot in life nearly as much as subsequent, far less accomplished generations have. But they weren’t perfect. Have a listen to your average group of octogenarians talk about race for thirty minutes and you’ll be disabused of any romantic notions of their moral superiority. The truth is that every generation is made up of rogues and princes. Every generation has helped build the world; every generation has done their fair share of terrible things to help destroy it. You take the good with the bad, because there’s plenty of both in us all.
Still, when I watch those jumpy black and white newsreels and I look into the eyes of those men, I can’t help but be overcome with profound gratitude that they answered the bell so often and so well all those years ago. Those guys (and girls) rid the world of the Nazi’s, and for that they have earned an eternal debt of gratitude from all who have come after.