- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009


The reunion of old soldiers becomes ever more poignant as the boys of an earlier summer move closer to the shadows that eventually embrace us all. The old battlefields that once commanded the rapt attention of everyone become remembrance colored in fading shades of sepia.

The present generations can scarcely fathom the enormity of D-Day in the lives of those who lived through it, soldier and civilian, just as the generations that followed could scarcely imagine the horror the young nation felt at Antietam, the chill that swept across the nation the morning after the Titanic went down, or the thrill of Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Every generation furnishes its own iconic events.

The men who survived the unique hell of the landing beaches of Normandy - Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno - are old men now, the youngest in their 80s, many approaching 100, and they’re shipping out to Valhalla at the rate of 5,000 every week. President Obama and the leaders of Britain, Canada and France did their best this year, commemorating the 65th anniversary of a spectacular amphibious landing we’ll never see the likes of again. Melancholy overwhelmed sweet remembrance; the boys of summer have become the old men of late autumn.

Barack Obama said the right things, and said them well. The occasion, wrapped in the somber pride of a grateful nation, would have transformed wooden remarks by George W. into golden eloquence, particularly if he had thought to get Peggy Noonan to write the words for him. But this year there was none of the electricity of Ronald Reagan’s masterful tribute to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” who did the impossible, scaling sheer 90-foot cliffs overlooking the beaches to silence German guns.

“What we cannot forget - what we must not forget - is that D-Day was a time and place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century,” the president said, reprising the spirit of Winston Churchill’s tribute to the young men of the RAF who won the Battle of Britain: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

It’s difficult now to recall how high the stakes of June 6, 1944. Failure was not an option, but the prospect of catastrophe was real. “At an hour of maximum danger and amidst the bleakest of circumstances,” the president recalled on the beach on Saturday, “men who thought themselves ordinary found it within themselves to do the extraordinary. They fought out of a simple sense of duty - a duty sustained by the same ideals for which their countrymen had fought and bled for more than two centuries.”

Nearly 160,000 men were put ashore at dawn’s first light on D-Day - 73,000 Americans, 61,000 British and 20,000 Canadians. By nightfall, nearly 5,000 Americans lay dead on the beaches. Even landing such a figure without the withering German fire would have been an astonishing feat of logistics. Five days later, the invasion force had grown to 330,000 men, bringing with them from staging areas in England more than 54,000 tanks, trucks and jeeps.

Nearly all the troops arrived on the beach in 36-foot plywood landing boats, the work of a brash, rough-hewn, profane, hard-drinking and hard-driving boat-builder in New Orleans. Andrew Jackson Higgins was described at the time by Fortune magazine as “having a pleasantly malicious expression.” Life magazine described him as a man with “the characteristic bluntness of the old-time American frontiersman,” who resembled the conventional captain of industry “about as much as a commando resembles a desk sergeant.” Andrew Higgins was the commando. Jerry E. Strahan, a biographer, noted that he wore dark shirts and dark suits and “was not afraid to call anyone he disliked a s.o.b. to his face.” He drove men hard in his four New Orleans shipyards. He festooned his production lines with a large banner, warning, “The guy who relaxes is helping the Axis.” His men loved him and broke production goals throughout the war. The U.S. Navy had nearly 12,000 ships afloat by the end of the war, and Higgins had built nearly 10,000 of them.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander in Europe, said years afterward, “Higgins is the man who won the war.” Higgins would have scoffed. He never let his boatbuilders forget who would ride their boats to war. They were all the men who got it done.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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