Saturday, June 6, 2009

65 Years ago today......

My grandfather - 20 years old- weighed down with too much gear and wading through water that was both ice cold and deeper than they told him it was going be, was there as a private with the Big Red One. He once explained to me that they'd practiced just about every aspect of the landing, but, as he put it, "We didn't expect them to shoot back!" Still, I don't think I came close to understanding what it meant to charge off the Higgins Boat and up the beach until many years later, when I saw Saving Private Ryan.

I've heard Stephen Ambrose describe D-Day as the ultimate victory of Democracy over Tyranny, because up and down the beach, as units were split apart and as the chain of command fell by the wayside you had men, in ones and twos and small groups - here a private, there an NCO and lieutenant, rise and up and say, "To hell with this, if I'm going to die I'm going to take some of those krauts with me," and organize into pick-up units to assault the pill boxes. Again, there is probably no better understanding of this than Saving Private Ryan.

The war would have been "won" without D-Day. Sooner or later, the Soviets would have worn down the German army. And after the Battle of Kursk, there was very little standing between the Red Army and Berlin, it was only a matter of time, resources and manpower, and Stalin possessed all three in spades.

But had the war gone that way the Soviets would have dominated Europe, and an entire continent would have been plunged into darkness for God knows how many decades to follow.

But as we celebrate the ultimate victory let us try to remember how distant victory must have seemed to those boys on those LCIs on that morning. The distance to Berlin - and to victory - was to be measured a few yards at time; a single beach head; a single hedge row; a street; a bridge. And between Normandy and V.E.Day many of those men would spend a few weeks dug into the frozen ground at the Ardennes forest, freezing and fighting for every inch of ground as a surprise counter offensive threatened to reverse the long months of progess the allies had made. Micheal Benard Eshelmen, my grandfather, would be wounded twice before the war ended, once at the hedge rows in France and once at the Battle of the Bulge - earning two Purple Hearts and perment hearing damage in the process.

So by winning on D-Day those small groups of men won more than a war, they won a peace that followed. They won a transatlantic alliance that survives to this day and they eventually helped win a untied Europe, with former enemies France and Germany anchoring a continent brought together under a common currency and customs union. It was perhaps the single greatest victory in the history of warfare.

And it all began on a cold beach, June 6th, 1944.

No comments: