The Hill: 75 years after D-Day: Service over self
When we think of June 6, 1944, we visualize gray-scaled, blurry images of soldiers storming the shores of Omaha Beach. If we were to step into those pictures, however, we would hear machine gun bullets piercing metal hedgehogs, waves crashing over helmets in the English Channel and sand spraying amidst the men who trudged to the 100-foot-tall cover of the beach head, fighting both nature and Nazi dehumanized. Eighty-pound bags would be scattered amongst the 200-yard long shore of Omaha Beach, their contents of ammo, rifles, journals and photographs of their sweethearts strewn across the nearly 6,000 onshore mines.
The Americans who fought on Omaha Beach endured the heaviest hit of all in the invasion, with nearly 2,400 causalities. Young soldiers stormed the beaches to move inland with little combat experience. Yet, their will gave way to fight.
After months of deliberation, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command in the final hour pressurized success. Many things could have gone wrong. The plan could have leaked, Hitler could have realized it was not a diversion but a real threat to his command or the weather could have forced delays. Luckily, none of these scenarios happened. The Germans underestimated the diligence and leadership of General Ike. His words the evening before echo through the halls of history,
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
Eisenhower led the first Army invasion across the English Channel since 1668. The mark of a true leader, Eisenhower prepared for both outcomes. He transcribed a letter in case the Allied forces were defeated, stating, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
He would never issue this statement.
It took until August 1944 for Paris to be liberated from Nazi Germany. The battle was an important foothold for the eventual surrender of Germany in May 8, 1945.
The brave Americans who decide to serve sign up to be a part of a tradition of service before self. In return, they are owed the highest amount of respect. My father served in WWII under the courageous air support missions in the Flying Tigers of WWII. My father, 1st Lieutenant Hugh Wilson, was a member of the 14th Air Force in the WWII Flying Tigers in India and China to protect the Chinese people. He served 25 missions during the years of 1944-1945.
He inspired me to join the service as well, starting with the ROTC program at Washington & Lee University. I then served three years in the Army Reserve 460th Replacement Detachment in Florence, S.C. and the 815th Military Personnel Company in Orangeburg, S.C. I served in the South Carolina Coast Guard for 28 years, retiring in 2003. I was promoted ultimately as a colonel with federal recognition in the Army National Guard. My four sons have all served in the military overseas in Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan.
I was grateful to award the French Jubilee of Liberty Commemorative Medal to 111 South Carolinian veterans of D-Day and the Normandy Campaign in 2003.
Americans today live amongst a shrinking generation of those that knew of D-Day beyond the black and white photos – a generation that saw it with their eyes, heard it through their ears and felt it in their bones. While there are many things to commemorate, memorialize and celebrate, many would tell you that D-Day is a day that should not be glossed over with each passing era. There are over 8,320 American heroes in Normandy Cemetery.
Each one of them is a reminder that anything material can and will perish – including you and me. However, heroism lasts forever, and those who believe in freedom will always prevail.
On the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, the words “thank you” to our nation’s men and women of great courage cannot be overstated. The world owes all of its gratitude to the young men who touched down into the English Channel and emerged from the tides of war as men of valor.
Joe Wilson is chairman of the Republican Study Committee National Security and Foreign Affairs Task Force.