Today marks the 77th anniversary of D-Day, that seminal moment in American military history that amazes and inspires us at the same time. It shares our grateful awe of commitment with the likes of Valley Forge, or Gettysburg, or even the Alamo, among many other pivotal battles in our hallowed memory.
D-Day marked the primary invasion of western Europe (the Allied landings of Sicily and Italy in 1943 notwithstanding) and signaled the beginning of the end of the Nazi Third Reich.
In terms of timeline, I was born only seven years after D-Day. So the only way I can experience that remarkable day – the horror, the heroism, the history – is through books, or grainy newsreel footage, or cinema.
There were 4,414 Allied deaths that day, about 2,501 of them American. And most of them on Omaha Beach.
So when I watch the footage, or read the history, I wonder if those soldiers had any idea of the history they were making. Did they see their service as one of preserving democracy in the face of fascism? They saw the effects of fascism – the death camps, the genocide, the destruction – firsthand. Would it ever cross their minds that autocracy could happen in the very country where they were fighting to preserve their democracy?
Could they envision the systematic suppression of voting rights in an era of Jim Crow? But even in this war, attitudes were changing. Two months after the D-Day landings, the Allies made their breakout, eventually outrunning their supply lines. Thus was born the Red Ball Express, a truck-dominated convoy system where 75 percent of the drivers were African-Americans who were racing much-needed supplies through Europe to the front lines.
The Red Tails, another Black outfit, flew P-40s and then P-51s providing escort for the bombing missions over Germany. The 761st antitank battalion, yet another all-Black unit, wrote history in Belgium. One of its soldiers, an athlete named Lt. Jackie Robinson, went on to create baseball history a few years later.
The 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Infantry Regiment was composed of soldiers of Japanese descent, many of whom saw their very families sent to internment camps for the duration of the war. Despite this, the 100th became one of the most decorated units in our history.
What was that about immigration?
So anyway, when I see the footage of American soldiers falling on the sand at Omaha Beach, does it occur to those men that one day the U.S. Capitol could be stormed by white supremacy groups? That an entire political party deals in conspiracies and lies in order to maintain its power? Isn't that what those soldiers were fighting against? Is that the American future for which those soldiers gave their lives?
I once thought D-Day meant the end of Nazi dominance in Europe. But neo-Nazi groups are springing up like mushrooms in the darkness. Social and political division is everywhere.
D-Day has to mean more than that. We have to be better than this. Those men who fell on the beaches were our Greatest Generation. Surely we can be better than this.