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In reviewing all the different statements about the June 6th, 1944 Allied invasion of Europe, I have yet another observation to add concerning those of us who are left to not just remember, but to carry on. There have been words both past and present that exceed any that I can add concerning how important the event itself was in the history of humankind. It was and still is the greatest military mobilization in the planet’s history. It not only was beyond anything attempted before but did actual, for a time at least, “save the world”.
One of the pivotal things for us to remember in our own special time of worldly challenge is how individual each act of bravery was that day. It was indeed a glorious achievement of overall planning, cooperation, and just plain blind luck. But it was done in thousands of very private, individual moments of sacrifice performed in a heated mix of both fear and focused courage.
If any war movie moments were ever to be required of each young citizen to watch about WWII, I would suggest two options. The first is the opening of Private Ryan. It is important that we grasp a sense of the terror that had to have touched every heart as those long doors fell down to expose the soldiers tightly packed together in the solid metal cage that was a landing craft. It is important that we reflect on how we would feel looking out at that single narrow opening as a constant flow of machine-gun bullets flew into it, not just striking those in front but bouncing off the craft’s walls to tear through flesh even deeper into the vessel’s human cargo. The options were to race out into that hail of bullets, climb over the side into deep water carrying a pack that made you helpless in deep water or to stay in that death trap among the loud sounds of bouncing lead and groaning wounded. There would be moments later as the young warriors were pinned to the beach trying to figure out how to get out from under the enemy fire. But those first seconds were, for the most part, the introduction to combat for legions of young men who had barely begun to shave and were still years away from legally voting.
For me, the second movie moment is steeped in the description from a paratrooper uncle who jumped into combat five times during those last few months of WWII. He was not quite as young as some of his companions, having joined the army in 1940 with an impulsive ambition to be a pilot. It was not until he was in uniform that the army informed him that he was too short to fly in the then peace-time air corps. After a short term in the medical corps, he was deemed just the right height to jump from the plane he was too short to drive.
The movie moment is taken from the adaption of Band of Brothers. And it is only a moment. For years I had carried in my mind the description of that flight over in the dark to drop behind French shores. It was characterized by both noise and silence. There was the shaking sound of the body of the plane that made you think it had to be paper-thin. But it was not a steady sound as it rose and fell against the wind. Each sound was accompanied by a shift of the plane as it floated its way toward Normandy. As the plane drew close to the coast there would be a shake and jolt from enemy ground fire as that sound mixed with the now much louder clatter of the metal of their craft. The silence came from the men inside, minute by minute as they approached France. This was the first combat for the 101st. Airborne warfare was new to Americans except for some action by the 82nd in Italy. Just like their brothers in those landing crafts, they were mostly too young to have seen a sophomore year of college. In a few minutes, their lives would change forever. That short movie minute fit exactly slow, quiet words I had heard years before from a voice that had then been still for a decade and gave them life.
It is my belief that in these single moments of stress, confusion, and often near panic the individual’s mind was not on overall goals of ideology. They were on the basics of life such as their blood, the family they might never see again, the buddy next to them who had become a scattered mass in a split second, the next port of safety on an exposed field of fire.
There were 4,414 Allied soldiers who died in France that day, more than half of them Americans. Their last thoughts were probably not of distant political goals but more likely about loved ones, opportunities missed, friends surrounding them, the mistakes made seconds ago, or simply home. Each act of bravery that day (and the days to come) were probably not thought through with analysis. They mostly happened in a split second of need, passion, or focus on momentary mission.
The Rangers who altered techniques to scale Point Du Hoc did so from a sudden need to silence the guns raining down on the beach which had failed to be taken out as planned. The need was immediate and they responded in the moment on the most basic level.
The lesson for us is that those single, individual acts of courage which were born from the most basic of emotions and needs blended together to create one of the greatest events of human history. They overcame blind luck of weather, inexperience, misjudgments of high command, and a dozen other things that befall an operation this large and new. Their acts were “grassroots level”. They were the strength of the whole operation and its success.
A few months later as fighting raged between American and German troops at the Colman Pocket in now mostly freed France, a battlefield-commissioned second lieutenant still half a year from his 20th birthday took position to cover the retreat of his men of Company B. When his rifle ammo was exhausted, he claimed atop a burning tank destroyer to take command of its .50 caliber machine gun. Despite wounds in both legs, he held off the enemy for an hour before rejoining his men. There, still wounded and without ammo, he led a counterattack.
When asked later why he had climbed onto that burning destroyer to man the machine gun, the answer was an uncomplicated “They were killing my friends”. Raised just east of the Hunt/Collin Counties line in Texas, Audie Murphy was not steeped in political philosophy beyond “what is right, is right”. He had not completed the 5th grade when he left school to help support the family. But his short and to-the-point answer illustrates a most basic duty we all have.
The free, self-governing society gifted to us by countless individuals, private acts is best sustained from the grassroots acts of us all. The bare-ground protection of that society is from individuals protecting what is closest to them.
Right now, there are parents defying school boards to have the deciding voice in their children’s education. There are a few citizens standing before city councils to defend gun rights. There are involved voters taking action to try and ensure a more secure count of their share in the public voice. There are others refusing to be excluded from the public discussion, either in public meetings or so-called social media. There are others who simply need the example to follow in the protection of their own rights or property.
The most basic acts of protection for our republic occur as we protect what is immediate to us; our children’s education, our own right to vote, the property of myself and the citizens next to me, our own city’s streets. There will always be some corruption in government of any kind. There will always be mismanagement at the highest levels.
But it is the individual acts and determination at the grassroots that can come together as a saving force for that republic. 156,000 Allied troops crossed into France on June 6 across a 50 miles stretch of coastline. But it was individual, determined acts that were often very lonely despite all that was around which made the day a success.
It is not enough for each of us to exchange a few words between like minds and then shake our heads at the direction the rest of the nation takes. There are battles that have to be won just down the street, across town, and down the road. No matter how small or hopeless they may seem, they all add up. They all require attention. That attention is the price of keeping a hard-won liberty which we are entrusted with. It may well be that these seemingly small battles are the ones we will be held most accountable for.