What Free Men Will Do: 75 Years On, Lessons From D-Day for Today’s Army
Seventy-five years ago, the Allies stormed the Normandy beaches to confront Nazi totalitarianism and liberate Europe. D-Day, June 6, 1944, was a watershed event in World War II and arguably the defining moment of the 20th century in the West. To paraphrase Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: American soldiers, in conjunction with America’s allies, came for one purpose only, not to gain anything for themselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that the United States had for conquest, but to preserve freedom—systems of self-government in the world … to make sure that Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world. It just shows what free men will do rather than be slaves.
By any standard, D-Day was the most complex and daring military operation in the history of Western warfare. By the time the full moon rose above the blood-stained French beaches, nearly 156,000 Allied soldiers had been deposited on the Continent. It was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. But why is D-Day relevant to today’s American Army? What lessons can our fighting force derive from what Eisenhower termed “the Great Crusade”?
Importance of Coalition Warfare
First, the coalition that launched Operation Overlord was the most successful joint/combined operation in modern warfare. From the start, the U.S. depended on other nations—the Western coalition and the Soviet Union—to defeat Nazi Germany. Eisenhower clearly understood that victory depended on the cooperation of powerful allies. Consequently, he appointed British officers as his principal subordinates to oversee all land, air and naval commanders. The U.S. could never have attempted the amphibious landings alone, to say nothing of the airborne operations that were heavily dependent on British ships and aircraft.
In a similar manner, Eisenhower’s relationships—and frequent disagreements—with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (Eisenhower’s land forces commander), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and French Gen. Charles de Gaulle were contentious at best. Relationships with American commanders such as Lt. Gens. Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton Jr., albeit not as confrontational as with Montgomery, tasked Eisenhower’s patience as well. It was Eisenhower’s ability to lay aside his own ego for the greater good of the Western coalition that made D-Day so successful.
The tension-filled political climate in the months preceding D-Day directly correlates to the current fragility of the NATO alliance, where there exists a perception of a loss of confidence in the United States’ commitment to European defense. The Western coalition was founded in 1941 on mutual respect in addition to the threat of a common adversary. Three-quarters of a century since World War II, current political and military leaders should be reminded that America’s warfighting capabilities are not only enhanced by a system of alliances but also on respect for its partners in the international community.
Story of American Resolve
Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945, opines that if D-Day proved anything, it’s that American soldiers need not look far to know what they are fighting for. The grave markers in the American cemetery at Colleville sur Mer, France, remain stark reminders that the U.S. must confront totalitarianism in order to safeguard freedom for those who are unable to do so themselves.
Andy Rooney, the late Star and Stripes reporter who later gained notoriety as a folksy commentator on CBS’ 60 Minutes, echoed Atkinson. Rooney wrote: “Even if you don’t know anyone who died, the heart knows something the brain does not—and you weep. If you think the world is selfish and rotten, go to the cemetery at Colleville overlooking Omaha Beach. See what one group of men did for another on D-Day, June 6, 1944.”
Fifty years after the Normandy invasion, a group of West Point cadets toured the battlefield. On visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, one cadet said, “At times one has a tendency to forget the intense commitment and feelings that go into soldiering, but this is a place that brings you back and reminds you what being a soldier is all about.” Another said, “Leading from the front became ingrained in my mind after studying Brig. Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. on Utah Beach and Lt. Col. James Rudder at Pointe du Hoc.” Leadership by example, the spirit of “Follow me!” carried the day.
D-Day’s success rested on the ingenuity and flexibility of small-unit leaders to close with and destroy the enemy. Like today’s fighting force, D-Day demonstrated the value of mission-type orders and a clear understanding of the concept of “commander’s intent.” First Sgt. “Bud” Lomell and Capt. Joe Dawson were but two of hundreds of officers and NCOs who remained focused on and accomplished their respective unit missions when they encountered unexpected obstacles.
Over the course of “the Longest Day,” Lomell personally destroyed the German artillery battery at Pointe du Hoc, a mission that Bradley, the First Army commander, labeled the most dangerous mission on D-Day. That morning, Lomell scaled the 100-foot cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. When he reached the summit, Lomell and his Rangers discovered that the gun emplacements were vacant. Knowing his primary mission was to destroy the 155 mm enemy battery, Lomell led a two-man patrol inland and discovered the enemy battery set up in textbook battery position and prepared to fire on Utah Beach. Lomell quickly gathered several thermite grenades and started destroying the traversing and elevation mechanisms of each gun, which would render the battery inoperable.
Three miles east of Pointe du Hoc, Dawson, of the 1st Infantry Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment, was reportedly the first company commander to lead his company to the top of the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. Landing in the second wave, Dawson later noted that “utter chaos reigned because the Germans controlled the field of fire completely. Most of the first wave lay dead or dying.” Unfazed by the chaos he witnessed, Dawson collected the survivors and proceeded to the base of the bluffs.
Knowing his battalion’s mission was to secure Colleville, Dawson led a squad to the crest of the bluff, dispatching two enemy machine gun emplacements in the process. He was first to crack the German defenses.
Lomell and Dawson were typical of the small-unit leaders who spearheaded the invasion. Along with their airborne counterparts, these valiant warriors personified Eisenhower’s adage that before the battle is joined, plans are everything. Once the battle is joined, however, plans go out the window. These lessons mirror the challenges the U.S. Army faces today in the unconventional warfare prevalent in the Middle East.
D-Day also reminds today’s Army that immersion in war requires medical treatment to combat the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the principal lessons of D-Day is that war does not end when the combatants sign the documents of surrender or an armistice, or when soldiers depart the battlefront.
PTSD is a mental health condition that develops in some people who have experienced or witnessed a terrifying event. Omaha Beach was such an event. For the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division who stormed Omaha Beach, the assault was their initial taste of combat. But even the veteran 1st Infantry Division was appalled at the losses incurred by the first two waves that landed at H-Hour. Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Division, the so-called Bedford Boys, suffered 90% killed, wounded or missing, including 19 from the town of Bedford, Virginia, alone.
According to historian Stephen E. Ambrose, as many as 25% of battle casualties were uninjured physically but were shaking or stunned, unable to hear or talk. Medics and doctors treated the men suffering from “battle fatigue” as close to the front lines as possible. Ninety of every 100 men diagnosed as exhaustion cases in the European Theater were restored to some form of duty, usually on the line.
Ernie Pyle, America’s foremost war correspondent, captured the impact of the initial assault along the Normandy coast and the subsequent fighting in the hedgerow country. “There are days when you see things so horrible that you wonder what it is that can make this war worthwhile,” he wrote. The American Army was still eight months from seeing the answer to Pyle’s question when the Western Allies entered Germany.
Later Pyle wrote, “All of us together will have to learn how to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another great war cannot soon be possible. To tell the simple truth, most of us over in France don’t pretend to know the right answer. All we can do is fumble and try once more—try out of the memory of our anguish—and be as tolerant with each other as we can.”
By the time the sun set on June 6, 1944, the Allies had secured a successful lodgment in Normandy. They had landed nearly 156,000 men onto French soil by aircraft and ship—75,215 across the beaches in the British or Commonwealth zone, 57,500 in the American zone, and 23,000 paratroopers and glider-borne infantry. Allied casualties on D-Day totaled over 10,000 men. The number of German casualties is unknown, but from that day, the Third Reich had less than a year to survive.
To those who survived D-Day, the end of the Longest Day provided a brief respite before the next day’s engagements. Pvt. Felix Branham was a member of Company K, 116th Infantry, the regiment that took the heaviest casualties of the Allied regiments on D-Day. “I have gone through lots of tragedies since D-Day,” he said, “but to me, D-Day will live with me till the day I die. It was the longest, most miserable, horrible day that I or anyone else ever went through.” Sgt. John Ellery, 16th Regiment, recalled, “My contribution to the heroic tradition of the United States Army might have been the smallest achievement in the history of courage, but at least, for a time, I had walked in the company of very brave men.”
Maj. Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne Division, one of Eisenhower’s company commanders who received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Brecourt Manor near Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, later reflected on the sacrifices of the soldiers of D-Day and addressed American soldiers, past and present. Winters said, “Wars do not make men great, but sometimes war brings out the greatness in good men.” It seems a fitting epitaph and a lesson for today’s Army.
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Museum Marks Anniversary
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day with exhibits, events and special guest speakers, plus educational tours to Normandy, France.
- The official D-Day ceremony at the museum will start at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, and include educational lectures, a performance by the museum’s Big Band, and a screening of the 1962 feature film The Longest Day.
- The museum will offer all-day public programming June 3–6, including special tours of its original exhibit, “The D-Day Invasion of Normandy.”
- Through Oct. 20, the museum will host “In Memory of What I Cannot Say: The Art of Guy de Montlaur,” a special art exhibit that showcases archival photography, artifacts and artwork of the French painter who fought Nazis and channeled his wartime trauma into art.
- Seize & Secure: The Battle for La Fière, a documentary produced by the museum and Louisiana Public Broadcasting, will be released in June.
- In Europe, a travel tour for nearly 1,000 guests and World War II veterans aboard the Ovation and the Seven Seas Navigator will follow the path of Germany’s conquest of Western Europe and the Allied efforts to wrest control back from the Nazis. Running until June 8, the tours will be led by authors, historians and expert battlefield guides, and involve the museum’s curators and digital collections.
For more information on the museum’s D-Day commemorative initiatives, visit www.nationalww2museum.org.