Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Honor Amid Uncertainty: D-Day Eighty Years On

June 6, 2024


When one looks back on D-Day (June 6, 1944) over the span of eighty years, it is dangerously romantic to believe that it couldn’t have ended any other way. Surely, we delude ourselves, the eager masses of Allied men armed with weaponry, ingenuity, and the sheer glow of righteousness, could not have stepped off those Higgins boats or leapt from those C-47 planes without the promise of achieving absolute, assured (though hard-fought) victory. 

Overlord, as the D-Day operation was named, was based in the south of England. Over 2.8 million Allied troops; 4,000 British, American, and Canadian ships; and 1,200 planes would supply what is still considered the largest armada in history. The assault to open a Western front against Nazified Europe would not be easy. It would require crossing the choppy waters of the English Channel, disembarking into the cold waves and inhospitable shores of Northern France, grinding through a brutal hailstorm of enemy fire, and, in some cases, scaling towering cliffs only to be met by certain and unmerciful death.

When D-Day finally arrived (determined by moonlight and weather patterns), the Order of the Day issued by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater of Operations, was confident of success:

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

Demonstrating resolve in his own manner, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill voted with his feet. Imploring Eisenhower to let him land in the first wave of the invasion, the Supreme Allied Commander emphatically refused citing Churchill’s irreplaceable role as war leader. As Eisenhower recalled, Churchill groused:

“You have operational command of all forces, but you are not responsible administratively for the makeup of the crews.”

And I said, “Yes, that’s right.”

He said, “Well, then I can sign on as a member of the crew of one of His Majesty’s ships, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Eisenhower fumed until ordering his chief of staff to involve King George VI. “You boys leave Winston to me,” the sovereign assured. “Well,” the King informed Churchill, “As long as you feel that it is desirable to go along, I think it is my duty to go along with you.” Royally checkmated, Churchill demurred.

But notwithstanding Eisenhower and Churchill’s enthusiasm, both were worried.

Victory wasn’t assured.

During the planning stages for D-Day, Churchill struggled, “When I think of the beaches of Normandy choked with the flower of American and British youth, and when, in my mind’s eye, I see the tides running red with their blood, I have my doubts . . . I have my doubts.” And confiding to his wife, Clementine, on the night of the landings, Churchill confessed, “Do you realize that by the time you wake up in the morning, 20,000 men may have been killed?” 

Likewise, General Eisenhower, having issued his rousing Order of the Day, privately scribbled and pocketed a second note he hoped he would never employ:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Victory wasn’t assured. But on June 6, 1944, beyond prayer and planning, there was little to be done except to let the soldiers do their duty. And the soldiers performed brilliantly.

On D-Day, Private Carlton W. Barrett of the 18th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, waded ashore through neck deep water under blistering enemy fire. Instead of advancing and hunkering down behind safe cover, the 5’4,” 125 pound Barrett repeatedly dragged drowning soldiers out of the surf and carried them to an evacuation boat offshore. Then he tended to the wounds and the shock of numerous fellow soldiers at different beach locations. Barrett would survive the war and be promoted Corporal before his honorable discharge. 

On D-Day, First Lieutenant Jimmie W. Monteith Jr. of the 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division navigated his way through withering enemy fire, organized men for attack, led two tanks through a minefield, destroyed several enemy positions, and ultimately helped secure a position on a coveted hill. He would be shot and killed by enemy fire. 

On D-Day, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. of the 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division ignored enemy fire and courageously led groups of soldiers from beach to seawall to secure inland. His cool and determined logistical intuition “contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.” Roosevelt was the oldest soldier on D-Day (at 56), had repeatedly requested the assignment, and was the eldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt. He died from a heart attack in France one month after the Normandy landings.

For their feats, these three men were awarded the Medal of Honor, but there were countless unnamed others whose hard work and sacrifice secured the beachhead, liberated French villages, and ushered in the beginning of the end of the Nazi rule of Europe. Notwithstanding injuries, lost equipment, and the scattering of forces, D-Day’s airborne and amphibious assault across fifty miles of shoreline (broken down into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword) brought 160,000 men onto the Nazified shore in a single day. Hundreds of thousands more would follow. But it was costly. Over 10,000 Allied lives would be lost on D-Day alone.  

When one reflects upon D-Day eighty years after it occurred, it is jarring to consider how badly it might have gone. It is conceivable that the Allies could have been repelled or annihilated. Subsequently, Hitler could have fully shifted to the Eastern and Mediterranean fronts, destroyed the Soviet Union and the British/American efforts in Italy. As a result, we could be living today with an unchecked Nazified Europe who brought the Holocaust to its bloody finish. 

But that’s not what happened. 

Henry V, William Shakespeare’s pinnacle history play of The Henriad, portrays an English king who possesses great courage, but also a healthy dose of uncertainty in his war against France. Notwithstanding his galvanizing call, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” to his loyal soldiers, Henry V also walked among worried soldiers—worried about leaving their wives widowed, their children orphaned, or simply dying badly in battle—the night before the daunting Battle of Agincourt. Like Eisenhower and Churchill on D-Day, the King needed to lead with confidence, engage honest uncertainty, and then let the soldiers do their duty. And just like Operation Overlord on D-Day, Henry V’s soldiers won a brilliant victory against overwhelming odds (the French were healthy, well-equipped, well-rested, and outnumbered the English twelve-to-one on home territory). Was it any wonder that upon hearing that the celebrated Laurence Olivier was producing a film on Shakespeare’s Henry V, Churchill wanted it released as early in 1944 as possible? 

It won’t be forgotten who was there (and who wasn’t) and what exactly was done.

D-Day is now eighty years old. Even the youngest sixteen year-old who fudged his way into the army and fought on D-Day, would be ninety-six today. The veterans of that fateful day have largely died or are now among the last to die. But the story of what might have been had they not been galvanized by General Eisenhower’s Order of the Day, had they not been inspired by rumors that Churchill growled over not being able to join them, had they not given “the last full measure of devotion” for their countrymen and their brothers-in-arms on a foreign beach miles from home, is nothing less than chilling. 

On the morning of the Battle of Agincourt, fully conscious of the dangers and glories, the duties and the freedoms this battle promised, King Henry V offered his famous St. Crispin’s Day oration. To be sure, it speaks of victory. But, more acutely, it lauds both honor in victory and memory of victory.  Years hence, the noble king said, each man, even with greying hair and dimming vision, will feast on this day, strip his sleeve, and show his wounds to those around him saying, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s Day.” It won’t be forgotten who was there (and who wasn’t) and what exactly was done. Because that day with all of its achievements was an honorable day, an unlikely day, a miraculous day. 

And so it is with D-Day.

May the brave veterans who, eighty years ago, won for us a far-from-guaranteed freedom gather together with flowing cups in the vaulted halls of heaven and say, as King Henry V would whisper,

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.