- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

D-Day. The very name conjures up echoes of American sacrifice and courage.

It was 62 years ago today that U.S. troops — and other Allied forces — stormed ashore on the sandy beaches of Normandy to seize a foothold on Nazi-occupied Europe and write a fresh page in the bloody encyclopedia of valor. It was a foothold that once taken was never relinquished and was the first step on the march to Germany and the toppling of Adolf Hitler’s regime.

If you want a quick lesson in the true cost of war, walk to the top of the hills overlooking those beaches and see the vast fields of crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves of the American dead. And if you look at the ages on those markers, perhaps you will be as amazed as I was at the number of lives cut short at 18 or 19 years of age. Sometimes, it seemed an old man was all of 21 or 22.

The raw figures tell the cost. According to the Army’s Web site, American casualties in the June 6 beach and airborne landings totaled 5,200, about a third of them killed in action, for a casualty rate of a little more than 5 percent. The British and Canadians suffered similar losses. While not the bloodiest day in U.S. military history, it is still a high price for some oceanfront property that we were to give back to the original owners.

We can compare June 6, 1944, with Sept. 17, 1862, when North and South covered the farm fields of Western Maryland with blood at the Battle of Antietam in the bloodiest single day for American soldiers. 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).

Those Civil War guys knew how to kill and be killed, and so did their descendants eight decades later. While the bill in human lives may not have been as high, the willingness to pay it was there. And so was courage to wade through yards and yards of water and crawl across a sandy shore in the face of withering gunfire.

It carries a message that we ignore at great risk. While the “butcher’s bill” may not be high every time, wars always have far-reaching and unexpected results. Even worse, sometimes they only set the stage for the next conflict, which is pretty much what World War I did for World War II.

On D-Day, World War II’s outcome was still very much in doubt. Earlier, the British had been repulsed bloodily when they tried a landing at Dieppe. Of course, the Normandy invasion was far vaster, perhaps the biggest amphibious operation ever attempted.

For hours, we listened to terse announcements on the radio. President Franklin Roosevelt issued a prayer. Many stores followed Macy’s example and closed, saying shopping probably should be the last thing on people’s minds.

It was not until my father came home from work after dark on the evening of June 7, about 48 hours after the initial landings, that he told the family it appeared the Allies had moved far enough off the beaches to feel somewhat secure. After a few hours sleep, he went back to work at the Bureau of Economic Warfare.

In those days, the whole country went to war, not just a comparative few pushed into the front to serve for the many who go on with life as if nothing is happening. Instead of stores closing so we can reflect on the gravity of events and pray for those going through the hell of combat, the White House after September 11, 2001, told us to go out and buy for the good of the country.

That all were expected to serve and sacrifice during that earlier was underlined by the president’s sons being in uniform. As a matter of fact, the Marines underwent a moment of alarm when a presidential son was briefly misplaced during the raid on Japanese-held Makin Island in the Pacific.

At Normandy itself, the son of an earlier president landed with the first wave. Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the assistant commanding officer of the 4th Infantry Division, was the first general officer to come ashore. Armed only with a pistol and walking with a cane because of arthritis, he led several assaults along the beachhead in a display of remarkable courage. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Five weeks after D-Day, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. died of a heart attack.

Elsewhere on the Normandy beaches that June morning was his son, Quentin Roosevelt II, returning to combat after being severely wounded during the North African campaign. They were the only father-son pair known to have landed in Normandy on D-Day.

It’s a useful reminder that service to country is a virtue, and that success imposes a duty to contribute and to serve.

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

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