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The Meaning of D-Day 70 Years On
Veterans of Normandy and Reagan friends gather to mark the sacrifices

The medals of George Shenkle, an 82nd Airborne Division soldier who fought on D-Day. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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John Fund

Sainte-Mère Église, Normandy, France

During a week in which many of the comrades of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl have expressed outrage at what they say was his betrayal of his country in Afghanistan, it’s refreshing to return to the beaches of Normandy for a celebration of the authentic heroes who stormed ashore here 70 years ago this week.

Northern France was under the boot of Nazi occupation, and was defended by an intimidating array of fortifications and gun emplacements all along its coast. But on June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of beaches whose names have gone down in history — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword — in what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and at the cost of 9,000 killed or wounded soldiers, the Allies gained a toehold in Europe that became the staging area for the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

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The passage of years has taken its toll on the veterans. Take Pointe du Hoc, a series of 100-foot cliffs that were scaled by U.S. Army Rangers at great peril on June 6. “In 1984, when President Reagan gave his famous speech at Pointe du Hoc, there were 15 busloads of 82nd Airborne troops who had parachuted into France there,” recalls Keith Nightingale, a retired colonel with the 82nd Airborne who has visited Normandy 30 times since his first visit in 1977. “This year, the unit will only be represented by two men.”

But while the ranks of the original veterans are thinning, their places at the lavish commemorations that are held here every five years are being taken by younger generations. Schoolchildren in Normandy are required to learn about “the Liberation,” and many know more about the battle’s disposition of various units than some of the returning veterans. More than 200,000 people are crowding into the Normandy region this week, and more than 12,000 of them — including world leaders from many countries — will attend the main memorial services.

Some of those attending take D-Day very seriously. Al Clayton is one of hundreds of “reenactors” who have come over from England to set up camp and play Allied soldier for a week. Clayton is proud of his completely restored American jeep and his uniform that marks him as part of the “Red Ball Express,” the units that supplied the front lines by truck. “I know most of the drivers were black and I’m clearly not, but I still want to honor what they did,” he told me.

At the beautifully landscaped American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, a map lays out just how the invasion took place and how strenuously the Germans tried to push the Allies back into the sea. In a gathering around the map on Wednesday were two returning D-Day veterans, patiently giving interviews and having their pictures taken with tourists. Clifford Dill, a 90-year-old peppery former combat infantryman from Greenville, S.C., regales us with stories of how he still drives a large truck around the country and was just stopped for speeding. Asked about his experiences at D-Day, he told me: “I had two thoughts always in my mind. It was ‘kill or be killed,’ and my job was to shoot as many Germans as possible. I did that, which is why I survived.”

Bill Prinlible is a 92-year-old vet from Pennsylvania who flew C-47 missions during and after D-Day to resupply the troops on the ground. He says people would be astonished at how much younger than he many of his fellow pilots were, and just how many missions they had to fly in a day. “We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we were making history,” he told me. “We just had a job to do and did it.”

I am visiting Normandy along with members of the Reagan Legacy Foundation, which was founded by Michael Reagan, the president’s oldest son. At a welcoming dinner last night at the château of Alexis de Tocqueville, Reagan noted that his foundation was unveiling a film on the significance of D-Day at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère Église this week. He reminded his listeners that his father died exactly ten years ago, on June 5, 2004. “We are here to honor the veterans but also to honor a president who spoke so eloquently about their sacrifice,” he told me. Indeed, after the dinner a French businessman came up to me clutching a brochure bearing Reagan’s words from his 1984 speech at Pointe du Hoc: “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.” The man was visibly moved by the dinner we had just attended, but also moved by Reagan’s long-ago words. “He explained the meaning of it all the best, and we remember both D-Day and him,” he told me.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.


D-Day: June 6, 1944
On June 6, 1944, over 195,000 troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline in the largest amphibious assault in history, preceded by a massive airborne operation to pave the way. Here’s a look back at that fateful day.
The Allied invasion force crossed the English channel on more than 1,200 combat ships and went ashore aboard some 4,100 landing craft. The bloody fighting on that first day took a heavy toll, with more than 9,000 casualties. But with the breakout from the beaches, the liberation of Europe had begun.
As the massive invasion force made final preparations in England, Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a stirring message exhorting the troops to victory. Here are General Eisenhower's words on the eve of the momentous battle.
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes 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 all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
The fleet of C-47s that would carry American paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne division.
Paratroopers receive final instructions before boarding their C-47.
Preparing part of the invasion flotilla at an English port.
A sign outside of Trinity Church in New York City.
THE INVASION: Part of the massive convoy drives across the English Channel towards Normandy.
Another view of the convoy.
An American B-25 Mitchell bomber flies over the invasion fleet.
Troops and equipment aboard a ship during the channel crossing.
American paratroopers en route to Normandy. 
Paratroopers prepare to jump into occupied France before dawn.
Troops board their landing craft for the perilous journey to the beach.
Allied landing craft near Omaha Beach throw smoke as camouflage.
Pushing toward Omaha Beach.
American troops crouch inside a landing craft as they approach Omaha Beach.
Huddling for cover from German guns inside a landing craft.
The first wave hits the beaches.
The first wave hits the beaches.
Wading ashore at Utah Beach.
American infantry wade ashore under the cover of naval gunfire.
American troops huddle for protection as an artillery shell explodes on Utah Beach.
Approaching Obama Beach.
Approaching Obama Beach.
U.S. Army rangers at the heavily defended Pointe du Hoc.
Royal Canadian Navy troops approach Juno Beach.
A Canadian landing craft approaches Juno Beach.
Canadian troops rush ashore at Courseulles.
British 48th Royal Marines come ashore at Saint-Aubin-sur-mer.
British troops on the beach.
French commandos disembark from their landing craft.
Soldiers with the Eighth Infantry Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, move over the seawall onto Utah Beach.
More landing craft approach the beach as smoke billows from German positions.
Infantry of the British Second Army prepare to move off Sword Beach under enemy fire.
American troops pull wounded comrades ashore on Omaha Beach.
Tending to the casualties at Omaha Beach.
Wounded American troops on Omaha Beach.
Soldiers take cover in foxholes after the beach is secured.
British armor moves inland from Gold Beach.
American reinforcement come ashore near Vierville sur Mer.
Cargo and transport ships move men and materiel onto the beaches.
British tanks and trucks disembark onto a “Rhino” barge.
101st Airborne paratroopers in Carentan.
Canadian troops move through a devastated street in Caen.
Aircraft fly over Utah Beach bringing reinforcements on D-Day+1.
Operation Overlord presses on as reinforcements march inland.
Updated: Jun. 06, 2014

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