Having once upon a time spent a year in Germany, where I acquired a now largely forgotten smattering of that land’s ancient language, I have always ranked being spared the requirement to speak German among the least of the reasons I should be grateful to those men who landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
It rates, certainly, but falls below the execution of friends and family members that would have ensued had they joined a British resistance, as some undoubtedly would have done. I might also note that my arrival some 12 years after the end of World War II would have meant, had the odious apparatus of Nazi rule proved victorious, that I would have been immersed from birth in the propaganda, Jew-hatred and Hitler worship of that dark period, with who knows what consequences?
It might well have been, of course, that “the New World, with all its power and might,” would have “stepped forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” But maybe not. Perhaps I would have grown up pledging allegiance to the mean guy with the mustache instead of that nice lady with the crown. Perhaps the Germanization of Britain would have seen me eating sauerkraut and bratwurst instead of fish and chips, which is scary indeed.
Certainly I would not have known a free press, which was so colorful a part of my upbringing, nor honestly contested elections with their concomitant debates and intellectual stimulations. The bookstores would have been distinctly poorer places, stocked no doubt with the works of Hitler and his sycophants to the exclusion of any form of criticism. The extinction of Jewry (here the heart really sinks) would have continued unabated. Christianity itself would have been bastardized into some form of messianic Hitlerism.
The horrors are endless.
The average age of the saviors who landed at Normandy was 26, which, averages being averages, means that many teenagers strode into that hail of bullets. We are still not certain how many people were killed or wounded that day but the general estimate is about 10,000, two thirds of them American.
Twenty-five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day I interviewed several men who participated in those landings. These were ordinary people who, in the aftermath of the war, did ordinary things. But they lived through extraordinary times and answered an extraordinary call, which means they were extraordinary ordinary men.
Today, we mark the 75th anniversary of that call.
Consider: It was as though China next Friday were to annihilate the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which is still, obstinately, anchored at Pearl Harbor. The world — our personal worlds — would change instantly. Our staff here at the newspaper would be decimated as all those aged 45 and below were plucked from their cubicles and dumped into boot camps, handed a rifle and from there posted who knows where. Most would return, some would not.
To those ordinary men, then, and indeed not a few women, most all of whom have long passed to their well-earned peace, a word of gratitude and a tip of the hat. By the time we mark the 100th anniversary of D-Day in 2044 I will almost certainly have joined your departed ranks.
I cannot imagine more honored company.