Gen. Marshall’s orders to Gen. Eisenhower were at once simple and yet staggering: “Cross the channel, enter the heartland of Germany and free the continent of Europe.”
To do so, Ike hurled 160,000 men, some 6,000 ships, 2,300 planes and 840 gliders at the beaches and cliffs of Normandy. He fully grasped the massive nature of the D-Day undertaking—and the risk. “Your task will not be an easy one,” the general of generals said to his men. “Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened; he will fight savagely.”
As the beaches turned red with blood, FDR urged the American people to join him in prayer. Noting that America’s sons were fighting “to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity,” he asked God to “lead them straight and true.” He knew what they faced was terrible. “The darkness will be rent by noise and flame,” the president explained. “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.” Indeed, the U.S. invasion force lost 2,500 dead in the first 24 hours.
I knew two of Ike’s men, two who stormed the beaches, rode the seas and screamed through the heavens on June 6, 1944, two who gave flesh and bone to Churchill’s desperate dream after Dunkirk—that “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, will step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”
One was the son of a physician, a city boy who grew up in the middle class of Middle America. In keeping with his family’s Irish roots, he was a devout Catholic and a lifelong Democrat. He attended the University of Notre Dame but had to leave school and a promising golf career to take care of his family after his father died. When war came, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. On D-Day, he was in a C-47, towing gliders over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
He never cussed. In fact, if someone said something off-color, he would leave the room. He had a childlike innocence about him always. He used to quip that he didn’t find out the big secret about Santa until he was deployed to England.
Like so many of his generation, he was optimistic and patriotic, stoic and humble. There wasn’t a trace of pride in him. In fact, when friends would ask what he did to earn the medal his wife kept on display in the living room, he would always say, “The Army gave me that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” Then he’d take a sip of beer and change the subject. No one ever pried the secret from him.
Likewise, modesty, patriotism and optimism seemed hardwired into the other D-Day veteran I knew. But the similarities ended there. He was a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Texas. He was anything but stoic. He could swear with worst of them. He wasn’t much for religion. And he was a lifelong Republican.
He entered the Army Air Force just out of high school. On D-Day, he punched through Fortress Europe in a glider, courtesy of a C-47. He brought back more nightmares than medals—images of Dachau and dead buddies, starving civilians and crash landings. But the nightmares didn’t poison him. Or more accurately, he learned to cope with the poison.
No one knows if it was Al Dowd’s plane towing Bill Eason’s glider in the predawn darkness of June 6, 1944. But I like to think that these men were tethered together, if only for a moment, as they stormed into the unknown to carry out Gen. Marshall’s orders. That’s because these D-Day Everymen were my grandfathers. I get my first name from Grandpa Dowd and my middle name from Grandpa Eason.
A Better World
Like so many of their generation—600 World War II vets die each day—both have passed from this life to the next. But their story lives, and has some resonance beyond my family, because of what these men were and what they became.
Some 405,000 of them never had a chance to become fathers or grandfathers—or start a family or finish college. But those who survived the war would create a new and better world for us. They returned home optimistic and patriotic and confident that they could do great things—because, after all, they already had.
My Grandpa Dowd created a business from scratch. From the most modest of beginnings—three friends selling medical supplies to a handful of local doctors—it grew into one of the largest medical-supply firms in the state. By the time he retired, his firm had branched out into office supplies and heavy-duty hospital equipment. He employed hundreds of employees over the decades, knew each by name and counted each as a friend.
My Grandpa Eason went to college on the GI Bill, worked on a factory line, invented a revolutionary blood-testing device—out of his garage—and then built a global company that one day merged with a German firm. Just think about that. He and his generation changed the world so much that after killing each other in two world wars, Americans and Germans were doing business together.
I disagree with the notion that D-Day’s heroes were ordinary men who did extraordinary things. Rather, they did extraordinary things because they were extraordinary, because, like silver-haired Clark Kents, they walked among us without pretense. They were extraordinary, quite simply, because there aren’t many like them. Some say it’s wrong to put men like this on a pedestal, but I say it’s wrong not to. We need them there to remind us of the price of our freedom and our way of life.
What John Adams said of the Revolutionary Generation is true of the World War II Generation: “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.”
Re-labeled the “Greatest Generation” in recent years, the World War II Generation doesn’t have a monopoly on greatness, of course. The spirit of Utah Beach and Omaha Beach lives on in every American who has answered when civilization called for help—in Korea and Vietnam, during Operation Vittles and Operation Tomodachi, on the Fulda Gap and 38th Parallel, in Kuwait and Kosovo, Baghdad and Bosnia, Afghanistan and Abbottabad.
That brings us back to today. Seventy years later, D-Day still offers lessons for those who have eyes to see.
First, deterring war is preferable to the alternatives. Two-thousand years of history illustrate that peace through strength works. It’s far less costly in treasure and blood than scrambling to respond to aggression or rescue fallen countries or recover lost freedoms. For evidence, compare the costs of Pearl Harbor, Bataan, D-Day, Okinawa, Dresden, Dachau, Auschwitz and Hiroshima during World War II with the costs of deterring the Red Army in the decades that followed.
Second, alliances work. D-Day was an alliance operation, involving American, British, Canadian and French forces. On this foundation of alliances, the Atlantic Charter was written, Hitler and Tojo were defeated, the Berlin Airlift was launched and West Berlin saved, Germany and Japan were rehabilitated, NATO was built, and the Cold War was won. With Russian tanks rumbling to life on Europe’s eastern flank and an autocrat redrawing Europe’s map, the NATO alliance seems as important as ever.
Third, some things are worth fighting for (or against). Those who are fighting our enemies in the shadows and sandstorms protect us from an evil as real and insidious as Hitler. No matter what the White House says, what we’re in the midst of is a war—a just and necessary war. As in 1944, it’s a battle for our way of life, for freedom, for civilization itself. Too many of our countrymen fail to grasp this.
Reagan’s 1984 Normandy speech points the way out of the murky moral relativism that characterizes too much of our public life. After talking about all they had done, all they had won, all they had lost, Reagan turned to a handful of D-Day veterans who had made the journey back across the Atlantic and across the Channel: “You risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it?” Reagan knew the answer. “The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next,” he explained, his voice rising and falling with that perfect cadence. “It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.”
Fourth, America remains the indispensable nation. In 2014, even more than in 1944, no country enfolds the full spectrum of power (economic, military, cultural) and embraces universally appealing attributes (political pluralism, economic opportunity, cultural openness) like the United States. To be sure, some countries possess some of these attributes, but only the United States enfolds all of them. No matter what the declinists say, this confluence of strengths gives the United States an edge in the 21st century. No matter what the isolationists say, this confluence of strengths gives the United States a special responsibility to serve as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. And no matter what the post-nationalists say, this confluence of strengths makes America exceptional.
That leads to a final lesson from D-Day. Americans have every reason to be patriotic and proud about yesterday—and optimistic about tomorrow. Sadly, the patriotic optimism—or optimistic patriotism—of the World War II Generation is something many of their children scorn and many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren simply don’t understand. With their blood, sweat, treasure and ingenuity, the heroes of World War II built what came to be called “The American Century.” Most of us will never know how much it cost them to preserve our freedom. To borrow a phrase from Adams, the least we can do is “make a good use of it” by reviving the free-enterprise system they handed down to us, pursuing possibilities and opportunities rather than lowering our sights, re-embracing self-reliance rather than statism, keeping our word in international dealings and defending those who defend us.
If we do these things, the 21st century will be another American century. If we don’t, it will be shaped by someone else.