- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, German sentries looking out to sea from their lonely bunkers on the Normandy coast saw the prow of a ghost-like ship poke out of the thick bank of fog. It was soon followed by another, and then more until there was a fleet that filled the waters from just off the shore to over the horizon and spread beyond sight to left and right.

And that was how the Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches began.

When we look back from our comfortable living rooms of today, it seems like U.S. — and Allied — success that day in particular and in World War II in general was inevitable.

For the guys getting ready to wade ashore, though, it sure didn’t seem that way. The Germans had been boasting for years of their impregnable defenses all along the French — and Dutch and Belgian — coasts. To the seasick GIs, who had been kept on their invasion ships an extra day while storms raged in the English Channel, the defenses looked just that tough.

The weather, in fact, had been so bad and the forecasts so bleak that many high-ranking German officers, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, had taken home leave in the belief an invasion was impossible.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an epic gamble, went along with his weatherman’s forecast that there was going to be a long-enough break in the gales, and ordered the invasion to be made.

The true test of courage is not the absence of fear, but of being scared out of one’s wits and still performing. And that’s what thousands of Americans — young and old, but for the most part still too young to vote in the presidential election that year — did: They put their fears in their hip pockets and brought their M-1 rifles and other weapons onto the beaches.

Together with the forces from the other nations of the Grand Alliance, by the end of the day they had secured a foothold on the mainland of Europe and seized the German enemy in a grip so strong it could never break free.

There was a steep cost for wading ashore and covering those first few yards of sand and then a few more yards. American casualties in the June 6 landings plus the supporting airborne assaults 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 had similar losses.

The full impact of those losses hits when you walk back just a little bit from the coast and survey the acres of crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves of the Americans who died that day and in the days that led up to the breakout and the Allied dash across France. The sacrifices so evident in those fields of graves carry a vital lesson for today.

Wars have lives of their own, and those lives go down roads and highways rarely mapped in advance. All too often, they merely set the stage for an even bloodier conflict, as World War I prepared the ground for Word War II.

Did the first Persian Gulf war set up the second? Maybe. Let’s hope this one does not set up yet a third.

At least one thing is clear. World War II was the last time the whole United States fully committed itself to anything. The whole country went to war, not just a comparative few pushed into combat as a token for the rest of us.

On D-Day, stores closed so we could pray for those in combat. By contrast, our current White House reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by telling us to go and shop as a demonstration of our stern resolve that we were going to maintain the American way of life.

That all were willing to serve and sacrifice was underscored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons being in uniform. Marines raiding Japanese-held Makin Island in the Pacific had a moment of alarm when it appeared a presidential son had been a casualty, but it was only a scare.

The son of an earlier President Roosevelt, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., landed with the first wave on D-Day, the first general officer to come ashore. The assistant commanding officer of the 4th Infantry Division, he led several along the beachhead. He was armed only with a pistol and walked with a cane because of his severe arthritis. For this awesome courage, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Five weeks later, Gen. Roosevelt died of a heart attack.

His son, Quentin Roosevelt II, also landed on D-Day. They are the only known father-son duo to have made the landing.

Perhaps another lesson is that leaders who call for such sacrifices should be willing to share in the losses and not just blithely ask others to bear the pain.

A third possible lesson is that optional wars probably are options best not taken.

Still, my mind goes back to those German sentries on lonely duty at Normandy. It must have seemed like an invincible armada of retribution was headed straight for each one of them. They were right.

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

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