All great historical achievements risk fading into obscure past events, reduced to calendar notations or unread Wikipedia entries — unless those moments are kept vivid and meaningful for future generations.
June 6 is one of those imperiled dates. It was D-Day, one of the most audacious military actions in American history. On June 6, 1944, about 156,000 troops of the United States and its allies invaded Nazi-occupied France by sea and air, gaining a foothold in northern Europe that would help lead to victory over Germany in World War II within a year..
At 4 a.m., as thousands of lost and scattered parachutists blundered about in the dark, the first 52 gliders arrived "like a swarm of ravens," in one German description.
This tale of valor and sacrifice has become more important to retell because those who fought that war — and learned its lessons of selfless service for the common good — are disappearing. More than 16 million Americans served in the military during the war. Fewer than 500,000 veterans are still alive. Most are in their mid-90s now.
Books recount U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's agonizing responsibilities as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. He didn't know if his invasion order would result in success or slaughter for the Americans, British, Canadians and others he ordered ashore at Normandy. Among those books is Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Light," excerpted here in italics. In it he describes the ferocious battle scenes, quotes the participants and honors the dead at Omaha, Utah and the other beaches.
By 8:30 a.m. the Omaha assault had stalled. The rising tide quickly reclaimed the thin strip of liberated beach, drowning those immobilized by wounds or fear. ... Only where escarpment turned to cliff, four miles west of Omaha, did the early morning assault show promise. Three companies from the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the headland at Pointe du Hoc, first climbing freehand despite a rain of grenades, then using grapnels and braided ropes fired from mortar tubes.
True, books and movies do capture the action of D-Day and testify to the bravery of the combatants. But libraries and digital archives are no more than repositories. Books can't teach unless they are opened. Movies don't add perspective if they aren't watched or appreciated.
For years, D-Day's participants played a key role as storytellers, though often reluctantly. They dropped from parachutes and charged heavily defended beaches to free a continent from tyranny. They struggled inland as their comrades fell. They suffered through battle. They won the day. Now they are disappearing.
Mortar rounds killed a trio of soldiers next to (U.S. Gen. Norman) Cota and wounded his radioman; knocked flat but unscratched, the general regained his feet and followed the snaking column toward the hillcrest, past captured Germans spread-eagled on the ground. Then over the lip of the ridge they ran, past stunted pines and through uncut wheat as Cota yelled, "Now let's see what you're made of!" GIs hauling a captured MG-12 machine gun with ammunition belts draped around their necks poured fire into enemy trenches and at the broken ranks pelting inland.
War is terrible. Tragic. D-Day was those things. It also was heroic and necessary. Younger generations of Americans won't understand what happened on June 6, 1944, unless they are inspired to learn it.
If you know the D-Day story, share it, teach it.