The airwaves have been filled today with remembrances of June 6, 1944. These anniversaries are becoming more poignant as the number of those who were there are dwindling. It won’t be many years before we lose our last survivor.
The numbers are staggering. By early 1944 it was clear that the allies would need to make an amphibious landing on the shores of France, but it was not clear where or when. Adolf Hitler believed it would be at Calais, the narrowest part of the English Channel. He was wrong. Around 6:30 a.m. that morning, allied troops began landing on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, south of Calais.
On that day 160,000 troops landed and began an inch by inch conquest of France. About 9,000 died on those beaches. We should never forget that.
D Day is also a reminder that landmark events sometimes turn on small, bizarre decisions. Hitler’s personal doctor, Theodore Morell, regularly injected Hitler with something he called “Vitamultin.” There is good reason to believe that one of the ingredients was amphetamines. On the night of June 5th, Hitler left instructions not to wake him. When reports began to come in about the invasion, Hitler was not awakened. When he finally did wake up, he believed the invasion was a trick and the real invasion was going to be at Calais. He refused to move troops to the invasion, and this eventually made the allied victory happen.
A few years ago I met a man who was part of the invasion. He told me that he was transferred to England with the understanding that he would be part of the invasion. During the day he drilled and prepared for the invasion. At night he was housed with an English family. They were not thrilled to house an American: all they knew about America was what they saw in movies about organized crime in Chicago in the 1920s. His room had only a bed; the rest of the room had been stripped of everything else. The good news is that as they got to know him, they recognized that this American was a good guy. He got home one day and found his room had the bed, and also a dresser and art on the wall. He was pleased to have dispelled their prejudice.
On the night of June 5th he remembered boarding the transport ship. He told me that some of the troops prayed the rosary. Others played cards. They were all scared.
The invasion was horrible. The sea was red with blood and the sand was littered with bodies. But he survived. Eventually the war ended because D Day achieved its purpose: it started with a beachhead and ended with the liberation of France and Germany.
My thanks to him and all those who spent the night of June 5th wondering if they would live another day.