June 6 was the 77th anniversary of D-Day, the operation during which about 250,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the work of taking back Europe from the menace of Nazism.
Eventually, about a million men would be involved in the long siege. More than 566,000 tons of supplies had to be ferried across the English channel for everyone involved over the course of just the first 27. It was truly a mind-boggling and remarkable achievement.
Amid that remarkable siege, however, are many even more remarkable tales of heroism and bravery.
As British and Canadian troops were just making their landing as part of the offensive, American troops who were already on Omaha beach were getting mowed down by German machine gunfire.
Many of those who managed to avoid getting hit by machine guns were later picked off by German snipers and mortars.
And possibly even worse, the men were on their own. Amid all the chaos, no explicit workers could be communicated from higher up. Eventually, small groups of American men would form amidst the carnage and mount assaults on the German installations from which the gunfire had been blazing.
Slowly, painstakingly, and with many casualties in its wake, the German resistance was peeled back in this way. But even with this improvised success, the men knew that there still remained much more hell to fight through before they would be allowed to go back home.
The surviving veterans of this siege — tough, crusty, and stout men made of far sterner stuff than many of those from later generations — don’t talk much about what they lived through. They certainly don’t refer to themselves as heroes or brag about what they did.
As of right now, only about 2,500 such men still remain alive. One of them is Charles Shay, a 96-year-old American who lives in Normandy. French authorities have been loath to allow the usual annual celebrations of the offensive to take place, skittish as they are about the pandemic. But Shay showed up at this year’s celebration and became the only living D-Day participant to attend the cemetery service in Carentan.
As Shay put it, “In France, people who remember these men, they keep them close to their heart. And they remember what they did for them. And I don’t think the French people will ever forget.”
Having shown such extraordinary courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the men participating in the D-Day offensive should serve as models to help us overcome ourselves, to inspire us to display bravery in the face of adversity and chaos. It is something to remember, especially in these times when the world appears to be falling apart.
We should also remember that these were ordinary young men plucked from ordinary homes and towns, much like ours.
And if under the pressure cooker of circumstance, they found a way to so magnificently rise to the occasion, then we can do so as well in our own time.