We have seen the images, read the history and watched depictions of what happened on June 6, 1944 as dawn broke over the dark waters of the north Atlantic and the artillery smoke hung heavy over the beaches of Normandy France.
In what remains the largest amphibious assault in history, 150,000 Allied forces scrambled from landing craft and scurried for the beaches under withering German fire that cut down hundreds before their feet ever touched the beach.
Facing what seemed to be almost certain death, American, British and Canadian forces defied every human instinct, pressing forward, taking the beach, storming the German fortifications and establishing a foothold on French soil that is today recognized as the turning point in World War II.
Today, 75 years later, we are still awed by the courage of these men.
We ask, what kind of man could do what these men did on those beaches in 1944?
Surely, they must have had some qualities of courage and tenacity that evade most mortals. Certainly, they must have been forged in the fires of combat, veteran soldiers who were well-acquainted with the chaos and blood and brutality of fierce combat. They must have been exceptional, superior.
And yet, despite the volumes of literature and historical study, we find no explanation, nothing to confirm what we naturally assume about these men.
Today, as we mark the anniversary of D-Day, we again find ourselves in awe of what we do know.
These were, by all accounts, ordinary Americans, most of them no more than boys, some as young as 18. Few were veteran fighters. For most, D-Day was their first exposure to combat of any type.
Back home, there would have been little to distinguish them from anyone else.
They were just ordinary young men who, when asked to do the extraordinary, answered that call with great courage and sacrifice.
They were men like Brad Freeman of Caledonia, now 96, who joined the ever-dwindling ranks of D-Day veterans to return to France this week to participate in the 75th Anniversary commemorations.
Freeman was a member of the 506th Parachute Infantry Division of the 101st Airborne Division immortalized in the book and mini-series Band of Brothers.
When the war ended, he returned to Caledonia, got married, raised two daughters and resumed a normal life, working 32 years as a mailman.
Such is the story of so many who survived the carnage on those beaches to change not only the tide of the war, but our nation and world in ways that still persist today.
Until June 6, 1944, the outcome of the war was not certain. Had the invasion failed, it may have taken years to bring the war to an end and even then it is unknown what sort of peace would have emerged.
As we know, the D-Day invasion was the beginning of the end and set the stage for changes that would reshape the world and our nation.
When soldiers returned home, thousands went to college on the GI Bill or bought homes through the VA loan program. Prior to that, college educations and home ownership were almost the exclusive domain of the wealthy. It was something working class people generally could never aspire to.
More than any other single factor, the GI Bill created the middle class in America, setting the stage for an economic boom that elevated the U.S. into the world’s greatest economy.
The successful outcome of the war also marked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement as black soldiers demanded the rights of citizenship they fought for overseas. Likewise, the war expanded the prospects of women, many of whom worked in factories as America’s men went to war. Until then, the career options for women were few — mostly in the fields of teaching or nursing.
That women could do “men’s work” opened up a world of opportunities that had not previously existed.
The effects of World War II cannot be overestimated. Like the American Revolution and the Civil War, it was an event that shaped our nation.
How much of that would have happened — or when would it have happened — if the D-Day invasion would have failed? We have no way of knowing.
What we do know is that the invasion did succeed and the world and our nation was forever changed.
As we consider the history of our nation, we think of great men — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt — and their great contributions.
Today, on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, we should think instead of ordinary men, most of whom are unmentioned in the history books.
Men like Brad Freeman.
All these years later, we are still in awe of them.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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