Remembering many June 6 wartime sacrifices, as well as D-Day after 70 years

Mike Dunham

Seventy years ago today 4,413 men died as they assaulted the beaches of Normandy. Probably as many Germans died trying to hurl them back into the sea.

The scope of D-Day, June 6, 1944, continues to be a source of awe. On this, the first day of Operation Overlord, 156,000 Allied troops were thrown against Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" and began an inch-by-inch process of expelling the Germans from France. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. By the Fourth of July there were more than a million Allied soldiers in the fight.

In addition to the individual stories of heroism and sacrifice, the complexity of coordinating an enterprise on this scale boggles the mind. It has become part of the popular lore of the battle that screw-ups by the planners caused as many problems for the troops as the Germans. But most historians agree that Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower and the three British commanders in chief responsible for land, sea and air operations did a good job of getting it right.

But the cost was enormous.

Recent estimates -- experts keep revising them -- tell us that 2,499 Americans and 1,914 British and Canadians died on D-Day. The D-Day Museum in Southsea (Portsmouth), England, says 37,000 Allied soldiers were killed in the Battle of Normandy, which played out over the weeks that followed.

That doesn't count upwards of 40,000 French civilians estimated to have been killed in the pre-invasion bombings and the ensuing combat.

America has been in other critical battles on June 6. On this day in 1942, the Battle of Midway, arguably the most important naval engagement of World War II, was wrapping up.

On June 6 in 1918, the Battle of Belleau Wood began in earnest, a pivotal point in World War I that would see the deaths of 1,811 American servicemen in the next 20 days, including the greatest casualty count for the U.S. Marines in their history up that time. The French later renamed the place Bois de la Brigade de Marine.

Of local interest, on June 6, 1942, Japan began its invasion of Alaska, occupying Kiska Island in the Aleutians. No one died there -- on that day.

Today also marks the 201st anniversary of the battle of Stoney Creek, Ontario. This is one we usually don't find in American history books. A total of 16 Americans died in combat with an outnumbered British force. It was a defeat for the United States and the furthest advance of our army into Canada in the War of 1812. It is remembered today mostly for the ironic fact that the belligerent entities would fight as allies in 1944. It was also an important battle in that it helped confirm the ultimate separation of North America's major nations.

So what was the importance of Normandy? It's often cited as "the beginning of the end" for Hitler, the day when his European fortress began to crumble.

That's somewhat simplistic. Allied troops were already on the continent, having invaded Italy the previous year. And the Red Army was slowly but relentlessly grinding away on the Eastern Front.

Editor John Lichfield of the Independent (U.K.) says the importance of the Normandy Invasion is that it forced Germany to divert resources that had been deployed against the Russians. Without it, he said, the war would have gone on longer and, with more time, the dreaded V-1 rocket bombs might have turned the tide to create a perpetual state of conflict.

Generally unspoken, but worth considering, is whether the atom bomb would have been used in Europe had the fighting there gone on for another year or two and how that might have changed the world.

Bravery, strategy, immensity, irony and history. Many strands come together to make D-Day a memorable event in the story of humanity, the reason why the nation as a whole pauses for a moment each year on this day.

But the overarching reason is the casualty count. More American military personnel died on D-Day than on any other single day of battle with the exception of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, with 3,654 combined Yankee and Rebel fatalities.

Living memories of Operation Overlord will fade as participants pass away and those of us who knew those participants also die off. But the 27 war cemeteries from the battle will be around longer.

They hold the remains of over 110,000 dead from both sides. The D-Day Museum breaks down the interred as follows:

77,866 German

17,769 British

9,386 American

5,002 Canadian

650 Poles.

Mike Dunham writes for the Anchorage Daily News. Reach him at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

 


Mike Dunham
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