As I looked over the cliffs to the beaches leading to the sea, I was awestruck with a sense of history and American pride. All was calm today, much unlike 70 years ago.
It had been more than a year in the planning. Decoys had been staged in places as far north as Norway to disguise the site of the invasion. Normandy was one of the least desired, but provided all the ideal requirements for the operation. The Germans thought it was one of the least likely and were looking for an attack on the northern coast of France, closer to England.
D-Day remains the largest invasion ever undertaken. Thousands of Americans, joined by forces from other countries, stormed the beaches at Normandy to begin the final push to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. Its success marked the turning point of the war in Europe.
Last week, many came to recall and honor the sacrifices of those who landed from the ocean and from the air. I was honored to be among them.
Each soldier or sailor who survived had his own story. Unfortunately, many never came back to tell it. Many lie forever in a French grave, some 37,000 of them, nearly half in a grave marked by a cross and stating their identity as “HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY A COMRADE IN ARMS KNOWN BUT TO GOD.”
The average age was 23.
One of those who jumped from the sky was the late Sam Gibbons, who went on to become our local congressman. I always respected his courageous service to our country. One day over lunch he described his experience to me. I will never forget that special moment of hearing his story. He was a true hero.
He spoke of how each paratrooper was given a metal “cricket.” If they came across another person, they were to make one “crick,” and if it was a friendly person, the return was two “cricks.” After crawling through ditches and underbrush, he found another soldier with “crick” exchanges, and they were able to gather together.
Subsequent to the fall of France in 1940, the German army controlled the entire coast of Northern France. Following the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, Adolf Hitler had hoped that Britain would agree to settle the war. But because of British determination and Germany’s inability to carry out an invasion of England, Germany was forced to maintain a defensive posture along the coast.
D-Day meant that finally the British and American threat could be “dealt with” once and for all.
The Battle of Normandy lasted nearly 100 days and consisted of American, British, Canadian, Polish and Free French armies under command of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
The battle took more than a year to plan, with code words, decoys and the need to build the necessary infrastructure, like floating harbors capable of supporting tons of equipment.
D-Day landed 156,000 men in Normandy, complemented by an armada that consisted of 50,000 vehicles, 11,000 planes and 5,000 landing craft and ships. Eight thousand paratroopers jumped from the sky.
It was a long day, but in the end the Allied forces established a beachhead, and fighting began to give wide depth to the beach perimeter.
By the end of June, the number of troops increased to 850,000 and the vehicle count to 148,000. By July 4, some 1 million troops had landed at Normandy.
It was a resounding victory for the Allies at a high cost of casualties, but it was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.
My eyes welled with tears of pride as we stood and sang the American national anthem, followed by taps and a moment of silence.
My wife and I placed roses at the base of the memorial, and as we looked up, we read these words surrounding the memorial that overlooks the cemetery:
“THIS EMBATTLED SHORE, PORTAL OF FREEDOM IS FOREVER HALLOWED BY THE IDEALS, VALOR AND SACRIFICES OF OUR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN.”
The cost of freedom is high, and many of our American men and women have given their all to protect it. Nowhere is that more obvious than here in Normandy. The marks of Americans defending freedom stretch around the world.
As we marked the 70th D-Day anniversary on Friday and look to Independence Day, may we pause to contemplate the price of freedom and those who fought to preserve the freedom each of us enjoy today.
Let us also remind ourselves about what happened at Concord Bridge, on the fields of Antietam and the beaches of Iwo Jima, and why liberty requires vigilance and courage to persevere still today.
Explain to our children the price that was paid to stop fascism and Soviet communism, why there was a Berlin Wall, what happened at Okinawa, at ground zero and over the fields of Shanksville, Pa.
Take a moment to teach our children and grandchildren to love the things we love and to honor the things we honor.
Let us remind ourselves that liberty is a gift from God and that each generation has paid in flesh and blood to preserve it.
As we mourn and honor the men and women who have died, may we be grateful for those who fought and lived, as we are thankful to God for the men and women who are currently serving to preserve our freedom.
John Grant is a political columnist who served 21 years in the Florida Legislature. He can be reached at [email protected]