- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

In this era when we Americans have come to expect almost instant millitary victory with comparatively little of our own blood shed, it is hard to convey to those who did not live through World War II what it was like then.

Today, the 59th anniversary of D-Day when the Allies stormed the Normandy shore, is as good a time as any to make the effort.

Triumph — the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan — I think seems inevitable to folks who know of the war as only a matter of history. For those of us who experienced it, that was far from the case.

In the opening months, we had suffered through a long string of defeats starting with the bloody surprise of Pearl Harbor. Guadalcanal had been a long and bruising campaign in what seemed to most of us the middle of nowhere.

We and our Allies — eventually including the Free French — had successfully invaded Africa and then Sicily. But that campaign seemed to have turned into a bloody stalemate halfway up the Italian boot.

The only experience we had of a landing on the French coast was Dieppe, when the British sacrificed Canadian lives in a costly repulse. And after all, the memories of the British retreat from Dunkirk, while a gallant effort, was yet one more reminder of what a tough enemy the Germans were.

So when the D-Day landings took place, the war’s outcome was still very much in doubt, and it was far from a sure thing that we were going to secure an area large enough to serve as a springboard for a sustained offensive and a drive to eventual victory.

For hours, we listened to cryptic bulletins on the radio.

It was not until my father came home from work on the evening of June 7, about 48 hours after the initial landings, that he told the family he thought the Allies had carved out a big enough beachhead for the invading force to feel somewhat secure. And then he went back to his job with Bureau of Economic Warfare.

And it was then that he seemed to feel it was now a matter of time; while there was still a price to be paid, that Allied victory was going to come.

And in the following weeks, the feeling of quiet desperation began to ease for those who had loved ones in the fighting as well as for the many who worked in factories and offices to support the people in combat.

But the price on June 6, 1944, was high, so high that I wonder if today’s Americans would be willing to pay it.

According to the Army’s Web site, U.S. casualties in the June 6 beach and airborne landings totaled about 5,200, about a third of them killed in action. That was a casualty rate of little more than 5 percent. While this is far from the costliest day in American military history, it’s still a high price to pay for some beachfront property that we were going to turn over to the original owners. I think it was Colin Powell who said that the only land in France we wanted were a few acres to bury our dead from two wars to help the French be free.

For comparison, the bloodiest single day for American soldiers was Sept. 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg as the South called it. That day the Union’s Army of the Potomac had more than 12,000 casualties (a 25 percent casualty rate) and the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia had more than 10,000 (a 31 percent casualty rate). That produced a total of almost 23,000 Americans killed, wounded, captured or missing — about 3,600 of them dead on the battlefield and more than 17,000 wounded, many of whom died later. Those Civil War guys really knew how to kill and be killed.

And so did their descendants nine decades later. While the bill may not have been as high, the willingness to pay it was there.

It carries a message that we ignore at our peril. Not all wars have a low “butcher’s bill,” but they all do have unexpected consequences.

Stroube Smith is a copy editor for The Washington Times and a free-lance writer.


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