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Their Finest Hour

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d day normandy usa soldiers

73 years ago, today began with a sunrise. Although I wasn’t there to see it, I’m sure it was beautiful; the golden rays peaking over the horizon, slowly bathing the constructs of man in a plethora of splendid light. I’m sure it was serene, very much like the sunrise that we were all lucky enough to have experienced this morning. I’m sure at the sight of daybreak, the young men of 73 years ago were filled with hope and anticipation, just like the young men who were awoken at first light today; the concept of new opportunities the ultimate catalyst for invigoration. A dawn that brought a renewed chance for something great, shared across the passage of time. However, unlike the young men of today, who roused from sleep to face a world largely peaceful, the young men of 73 years ago rose to face a universe plunged into darkness. But still, I do not doubt they felt hopeful.

On June 6th, 1944, somewhere between 130,000 and 156,000 men of many different homes landed on the coast of the French region of Normandy. Their mission was the impossible: establishing a friendly foothold on a continent embalmed by the poison of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. It was known as Operation Overlord: the Allied invasion of Europe. Standing in the men’s way was a menacing enemy who was better equipped, better supplied, and fortified in their positions. Despite a pre-emptive aerial campaign to wreak havoc on the enemy’s supply routes and the landing of 24,000 airborne troops to soften the defenses, the invasion stared down inconceivable odds against success. It was an endeavor soaked in the bile of despair. And yet, at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 6th, 1944, the men trudged forth into the jaws of hopelessness, the opportunity of a new sunrise glistening in front of them. For 12,000 of them, it would be their last.

By the time I was born, my grandfather was already showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a stern man, tall and wispy when I knew him, but from pictures, I know he was once a burly pile of American muscle. To my understanding, he served in World War II as a munitions truck driver. He would go where they needed him, sometimes driving an entire length of the front just to resupply some of his brothers with the extra lead they so desperately needed to wage war. As I matured, I became fascinated with history, especially the wars my country had participated in, and knowing my grandfather had fought in one of the most famous of those conflicts piqued my 14-year-old curiosity. Now, my father always told me that I wasn’t supposed to ask soldiers about their service, but one time I was alone with my grandfather and I just couldn’t help myself.

“What was it like?” I asked. “Weren’t you scared that you would die?”

I remember my grandfather, in a surprising moment of lucidity, looked up at me from the bed he was confined to (the Alzheimer’s had progressed quite a bit, and it seemed like he was always sick) and smiled at me.

“I was always scared,” he said, “but I knew if we didn’t stop the Nazis then, then my son’s sons would have to finish the job. It was for the people that would come after us. It was for you.”

My grandfather died eighteen days after my fifteenth birthday.

So, to the men who landed on the beach 73 years ago, I don’t salute you, because frankly, I don’t deserve to. I haven’t felt the steel of a landing craft underneath my boots, or watched the ramp come down onto the sand of a foreign country. I’ve never had to take a life for my country, nor have I felt the fear that comes with knowing my end is just around the corner. I’ve never wiped away the spray of an ocean awash with my brother’s blood or shouldered the burden of a bleak future. I’m afraid all that I am capable of offering is my meager thanks, and my sincerest pledge that I will do everything in my power to avoid wasting the opportunity you bought me at the greatest cost. I know it’s not much, but it’s all I have to offer right now.

Today is June 6th, 2017. 73 years ago, young men around our age gave us a future. Remember them, even if it’s all you have the power to do right now.

To finish, I present you with this quote. The Soldier’s Poem, attributed to PFC. James A. Donahue, USMC. 1st Marine Division, H Company, 2nd. Battalion, 1st. Regiment:

“And when he gets to Heaven, to St. Peter he will tell “One more soldier reporting, sir, I’ve served my time in Hell.””

Image via Shutterstock

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Wooden hulled, three masted heavy frigate. Named by President George Washington.

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