This Great And Noble Undertaking

I first wrote this piece five years ago.   I’ve updated it, bit by bit, on successive D-Day anniversaries.  I’m reprising it today:


It was sixty-seven years ago today that the Allies started taking Western Europe back from the Nazis.

The first, inevitable step was to get past the Westwall – perhaps the most immense set of fortifications ever built, with the intention of making the beaches from Denmark to the Spanish border a bloodbath for any troops trying to cross the beaches.

In places, it worked:

In some places, the troops had to overcome the near-impossible:

And yet by the end of the day, nine allied divisions were ashore, a toehold for a bridgehead that would eventually expand, ten months later, across Western Europe.

There were troops from the US, of course, on the two western beaches…

…and farther east, beaches with Brits…

…and Scots…

And in the middle, linking the two and meeting the worst resistance other than Omaha, the Canadians:

Troops from the Canadian Third Division coming ashore at Juno Beach – where the ferocity and difficulty of the fighting was exceeded only by Omaha Beach.

…along with troops-in-exile from elsewhere in occupied Europe; French commandos – some of whom had spent four years in exile, and who spent the next year belying the notion that the French were cowards…:

…and Norwegians, who’d been without a homeland for four years…

HNoMS Svenner – sunk by German gunfire off Sword Beach.

…and Poles, who’d been in exile for five years and would, in some cases, remain there for forty-five more:

The world may see nothing like it again.

So – thank a D-Day veteran.

Here’s President Reagan’s address to the survivors of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion, thirty years ago today…:

…who at this time seventy years ago, French Time, were still a day away from being relieved by the troops coming in from Omaha Beach.

8 thoughts on “This Great And Noble Undertaking

  1. Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago that I always ran on this day on my old blog. Since that is all but extinct, I’ll throw it in here:

    June 6
    I’ve felt like this before. The nausea,
    simultaneously sweating and shivering,
    knowing that something was about to happen
    and it wouldn’t be good.
    Then it was being crammed into the landing craft,
    Pressing toward Omaha Beach,
    held in place by the shoulders of the men on either side of me,
    eyes fixed on the door at the front,
    with death on the other side as the bullets hissed.
    Now it’s more than sixty years later
    and the tubes and wires
    hold me in place as the machines hiss
    as I stare at the door with death on the other side.
    Maybe this time, too, I’ll be lucky.

    Then we advanced like a wave, and death took us
    by the handfuls;
    Bombs, machine guns, artillery shells leaving
    sudden gaps in the line,
    friendships and debts disappearing in an instant,
    but we still advanced from hedge to hill, from farm to city.
    Storming a farm house we found
    the German kid with a couple of bullets
    (maybe mine)
    in him, clutching a religious medallion and
    praying “Mein Gott, mein Gott”
    as he bled out.
    My God.
    My God, too.
    I knelt and his lips moved as he looked at me,
    I put my hand on the side of his face,
    “God, have mercy on him,” I prayed as his
    face became peaceful and the light left with his blood.
    “God, have mercy on us all.”

    At reunions we’d regroup and note
    the new gaps in the line;
    death now a sniper as we fall one by one
    and just as inevitably.
    Does He see our faces in the scope
    as He lines up the head shot,
    or only the meat as he selects
    heart, lungs, marrow?
    Then we advanced because we had to,
    We had to win
    We had to make our losses mean something.
    We thought we had won, at the end,
    but it was only the war and not the battle
    and the lives were just a down-payment
    on peace and breathing room
    until the enemy returns
    with installments paid in different ways
    in the days and nights to come.
    Sometimes in later years
    when I felt the moistness of my wife
    I would suddenly think of Steinie,
    of pushing his guts back inside him
    after he was burst by the 88.
    Those were the nights, then,
    when I would sit up at the kitchen table, smoking
    until you kids came in for breakfast,
    keeping watch, remembering the faces,
    wondering how many others might also be sitting up
    that night, remembering the same faces.
    I don’t wonder so much anymore.

    Meanwhile, the fat sales director,
    who sat out the war In England
    in the Quartermaster corps, would say,
    “Boys, we’ve got to take that hill” and
    we would take that hill, fill that quota,
    and make another payment on the Dream
    because we had seen Evil and had our fill
    and thought it was finished and that
    the world had been reborn shiny and new.
    Surely it had to have been,
    given the cost;
    surely evil had to have been driven away,
    and we came back to build a new world
    for you our children,
    a world where you would never have to
    face what we faced;
    see what we saw,
    do what we had done.
    We were naive, of course,
    but don’t blame us
    for wanting it to be so.

    Did we do wrong, my children?
    Thinking no one would dare open that door again,
    did we neglect to prepare you,
    to give you valuable perspective?
    You´ve seen the pictures,
    And heard the words,
    but you can´t know the smell
    or the taste,
    of walking into that concentration camp,
    so your Hitlers are effigies and
    Nazis are bogeymen,
    mere cursing but not a curse.
    I´m sorry, I´m sorry, I´m sorry.
    There’s much I would have you know
    things I should have said and
    lessons you’ll have to learn on your own.

    I don’t know why I’ve lived so long
    when so many died around me,
    unless it’s because something of their
    unused futures was somehow transferred to me
    in the spray of their blood.
    I’ve tried to use it well.
    May you do the same.

  2. Dude, that was like 70 years ago. (Sarcasm). Mitch, your pieces on the history of WW II are priceless.

  3. Just had some guests over to share dinner. When we retired to my room of remembrances to see my stuff, I showed them my late father’s WWII duffle bag and the few mementos he brought back. He never made a big deal over the stuff, it just happened. No greater affect on him than on his 11 siblings (or spouses) who also dealt that stuff over there. Heck, as kids we played with all the bring-backs.

    My Dad and uncles, as well as my Mom and aunts who supported them and their children back home during that time, are now gone. May God give us half the strength they had …

  4. Thank you for your comments, Scott and Mitch. I’m not sure where that poem came from; my grandparents worked for Curtis-Wright during the war and my parents were too young to be involved, but I still grew up with a respect and awe for what had been accomplished. When the idea of the poem came to me, I think it took all of 30 minutes to write.

    As to what Joe wrote, I wrote a later essay entitled, “The Greatest Degeneration?” that offered that perhaps our current generations, if pressed, could accompllish something similar. It read, in part:

    Today it is worthwhile to celebrate and honor their mindset to do what had to be done, but in doing so perhaps we sell short our own capacity to do the same. Given the opportunity, I think that past generation — faced with economic collapse and a global thirst for totalitarianism — would have just as soon let that cup pass them by. That option, of course, was not granted them and they knew it. Perhaps the greatest difference between their generation and ours is that today we think such a choice exists.

    They grew up with cash on the barrelhead, “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” mantras; they had witnessed what financial speculation and excess led to. The only thing they deferred was gratification as they scrounged to support their families or slogged toward Germany, all to the tune of “When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World.” Yet the generation that couldn’t say “No” to its fate gave birth to the generation that apparently can’t say “No” to anything.

    You can’t blame our forbears for having suffered much and desiring that their children not know the fear, hunger and torment that they endured. Out of that love, perhaps, it was natural to have a vision of raising up a generation that would know no limits…and one, unfortunately, that also knows no “No.” Our generation defers no gratification, only the payments, and won’t the next generation be thankful?

    To be honest, the Greatest Generation also voted repeatedly for the New Deal, the ancestor of today’s stimulus package — yet they were likely the first ones to come up with the analogy that’s going around today of trying to increase the amount of water in a swimming pool by hauling buckets from the deep end and pouring them into the shallow end! They were human, capable of taking what looks like an easy way out but also quite capable, when pressed, to digging deep within themselves to persevere through hardship and work for something better and bigger than themselves.

    We, too, are human and even with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement we are capable of the same inner reserves and faith. Like our parents and grandparents, we may not willingly seek out adversity, but we shouldn’t run from it either. We can meet it, defeat it, and give the next generations stories to tell rather than debts to pay.

    If only we get the chance.

  5. Pingback: “The Greatest American Battle of the War” | Shot in the Dark

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