D-Day scene in France

 Soldiers disembark from landing craft on Omaha Beach in a photo taken after the landing on June 6, 1944. Note the helium-filled barrage balloons deployed to offer protection from Nazi air attacks. Photo from National Archives

By Bob Zientara

The 75th anniversary of D-Day arrives tomorrow, June 6, 2019. On that day, three quarters of a century ago, five beaches on the Cotentin Peninsula, in France, were invaded by more than 156,000 human beings, riding in 1,500 tanks, aboard 5,300 ships, or flying in 12,000 aircraft.

Anniversaries like this one remain important to baby boomers like me. We were born between the end of World War II (late August 1945) and the decade that followed – until about Jan. 1, 1956.

As we leave the workforce and retreat to fishing holes and golf courses, we take with us the last living memory of World War II veterans.

Many of us had parents and/or close relatives who served during the war and who (in some cases) were willing to talk about what they had seen and done. We listened to the stories and took them to heart.

For journalists lucky enough to meet World War II veterans during their careers (present company included), the memories are equally as vivid.

In 2006, I wrote a story about a retired Iowa carpenter who survived the explosion of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. More than 30 years before that, I met a city council member in Hudson, Wis., who was the pilot of a B-17 shot down in 1944. During that same time period, I interviewed a dignified Lutheran newspaper publisher in Minneapolis. He commanded a landing craft at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, and watched as many of the tank crews on his ship were drowned before they ever reached land. I can still remember the emotion in his voice as he talked about that moment.

Whether they were relatives or the subjects of interviews, almost all those people are long gone. But for those of us of a certain age, their stories – and the emotions that went with them -- are ingrained in our memory.

Here’s an example: In the mid-1980s, my son and I accompanied the man from Hudson, to visit a display of World War II aircraft. He offered to take us through a B-17. He said it was the first time he could bring himself to get into one of the four-engine bombers. And he wept as he showed us around, especially the cockpit.

Seeing, listening, touching -- those are the qualities that can bring you in closest touch with history. And that’s why this story might fail in its purpose – to compellingly describe the enormity of World War II; to help the reader to fully understand how huge and all-consuming a conflict it was. In other words, you’d have had to be there – or to have met someone who was.

I guess my only alternative is to “paint by numbers” and talk about D-Day in terms of statistics. Numbers are dry and unemotional. But they do, at least, have some impact, because they are a common frame of reference for all readers.

There’s an infographic with this story that lists total Allied military deaths on June 6, 1944. Those numbers are then compared to all U.S. military deaths since Sept. 11, 2001, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On D-Day, more than 4,000 soldiers, sailors, aviators, paratroopers and glider troops lost their lives -- in just 24 hours. That is only 1,200 fewer casualties than those sustained in two decades of the war on terror. Hopefully, for the reader, that’s something worth pondering.

So is this excerpt from “Delivered from Evil,” a one-volume history of World War II by Robert Leckie. The author describes preparations for D-Day, including the bombing of important French rail facilities in May 1944.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to prevent the Germans from rushing troops and tanks to Normandy on the day of the invasion, and he demanded that the bombing take place.

According to Leckie, Eisenhower was opposed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who “did not wish to be responsible for the slaughter and maiming of hundreds of thousands of French and Belgian civilians.”

Instead, Churchill sought support from French Gen. Pierre Joseph Koenig, who represented Free French leader Charles de Gaulle in London. But Koenig supported Eisenhower: “We would take the anticipated (civilian) loss to be rid of the Germans,” Koenig told Churchill.

Eisenhower got his way. In the run-up to D-Day, 76,000 tons of bombs were dropped on French and Belgian rail targets.

Leckie wrote: “Only 12,000 French and Belgian civilians died, many fewer than had been feared.”

Think about that. “Only” 12,000 deaths. These cold, hard, numbers might not have the same effect as would the personal memories of those who were there, or those of us who met, spoke with, and listened to them.

But – to be sure – the numbers still have an impact.