Remembering the Horrors of D-Day

Seventy-nine years ago this week, the Allies assaulted the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Their invasion marked the largest amphibious landing since the Persians under Xerxes invaded the Greek mainland in 480 B.C.

Nearly 160,000 American, British, and Canadian soldiers stormed five beaches of Nazi-occupied France. The plan was to liberate Western Europe after four years of occupation, push into Germany, and end the Nazi regime.

Less than a year later, the Allies from the West, and the Soviet Russians from the East, did just that, utterly destroying Hitler’s Third Reich.

Ostensibly, the assault seemed impossible even to attempt.

Germany had repulsed with heavy Canadian losses an earlier Normandy raid at Dieppe in August 1942.

The Germans also knew roughly when the Allies were coming. They placed their best general, Erwin Rommel, in charge of the Normandy defenses.

The huge D-Day force required enormous supplies of arms and provisions just to get off the beaches. Yet the Allies had no means of capturing even one port on the nearby heavily fortified French coast.

To land so many troops so quickly, the Allies would have to ensure complete naval and air supremacy.

They would have to tow over from Britain their own ports, lay their own gasoline pipeline across the English Channel, and invent novel ships and armored vehicles just to get onto and over the beaches.

More dangerous still, the invaders would ensure armor and tactical air dominance to avoid being cut off, surrounded, and annihilated once they went inland.

German Panzer units—battle-hardened troops in frightening Panther and Tiger tanks, with over three hard years of fighting experience on the Eastern Front—were confident they could annihilate in a matter of days the outnumbered lightly armed invaders.

Such a huge force required 50 miles of landing space on the beaches. That vast expanse ensured that some landing sites were less than ideal—Omaha Beach in particular.

No one quite knows how many allied soldiers, airmen, and sailors were lost during D-Day’s 24 hours.

Some 10,000 casualties is a good guess, including nearly 4,500 dead. Well over 400 soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured every hour of the first day.

Most of the losses occurred at Omaha Beach, the riskiest landing area. Cliffs there offered perfect German lines of fire onto the landing craft below.

Concrete seawalls blocked access from the beaches. Crack German troops had recently beefed up the fortifications. Mined hedgerows blocked entry into the countryside.

A tragic paradox of D-Day was that Omaha Beach proved an ungodly nightmare, while the other four landing sites worked like clockwork with few casualties.

Nearly a quarter-million Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in “Operation Overlord” over the ensuing seven weeks of fighting in Normandy. Combined German and Allied casualties exceeded 400,000. Nearly 20,000 French civilians were killed as “collateral” damage.

The Allies did not secure Normandy until the end of July, when they finally broke out into the plains of France and began racing toward Germany.

Intelligence failures, poor coordination between airborne and infantry troops, and mediocre leadership all plagued the Allies for most of June and July.

Yet the Allies pulled off the impossible by surprising the Germans, securing a beachhead, supplying that toehold in Western Europe, and then expanding the pocket into a vast 1,000-mile front that in less than a year shattered Hitler’s defenses.

How and why did the Americans on Omaha charge right off their landing craft into a hail of German machine gun and artillery fire, despite being mowed down in droves?

In a word, they “believed” in the United States.

That generation had emerged from the crushing poverty of the Great Depression to face the reality that the Axis powers wanted to destroy their civilization and their country.

They were confident in American know-how. They were convinced they fought for the right cause. They were not awed by traveling thousands of miles from home to face German technological wizardry, veterans with years of battle experience, and a ruthless martial code.

The men at Omaha did not believe America had to be perfect to be good—just far better than the alternative.

They understood, like their predecessors at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and the Meuse-Argonne, that nothing in the United States was guaranteed.

They accepted that periodically some Americans—usually those in the prime of life with the greatest futures and the most to lose—would be asked to face certain death in nightmarish places like Omaha, in a B-17 over Berlin, or the horrid jungles in the Pacific.

The least our generation—affluent, leisured, and so often self-absorbed—can do is to remember who they were, what they did, and how much we owe them.


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46 thoughts on “Remembering the Horrors of D-Day”

    1. John L Jordan

      U.S. Navy Seabees sent my dad to the Aleutian Islands…from Alabama. He ran heavy equipment, building airstrips for the bombers. I’ve got the folio sized pictorial book his battalion published for its members after the war was over. Open the front cover and the first thing you see is a two-page spread of the mess-kitchen. A sailor is cleaning the biggest halibut I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s taller than he is, hanging by its tail from the ceiling. Enough meat to feed at least 500 men at one sitting. An army survives on its stomach…

  1. Donald Gehrig MD

    thank you for this remembrance and moving piece, Prof Hanson
    my father served in the Pacific w/ the 107th CB group, my bros in law’s uncle from Harlan Indiana, never made it off Omaha Beach…
    my great grandfather w/ the Indiana 88th fought with Gen Sherman in the Civil War, 1862 – 1865…
    and I know through your writings and gratitude and awe, that your Dad was an aviation hero flying many missions in WWII over Europe…
    I’m grateful to you for your reverence for all those who knew and fought for the idea “that freedom is not free”!

  2. Robert Feldtman

    Oh how we have fallen into the arms of communism.. Our fathers and grandfathers did D-Day.
    NYC Mayor putting illegal immigrants in private residences. We all need to re-watch Dr Zhivago and realize the kids with college degrees and a copy of Cloward-Pivens under their arms are blinded to the hazard. I predict very bad times ahead for America as we knew it in the 1960-60s.

    1. I immediately thought of the Dr Zhivago scene when the common folks of Moscow with virtually nothing used Communism ideals to move into private homes of others with the help of the gov’t. Over 100yrs later we are about to experience similar events.


      I have used the referral of Dr. Zhivago to people I thought understood all about the Russian Red and White armies and how personal residents were commandeered for the “less well-to-do”. I was shocked at how many either didn’t see the movie or didn’t pick up on how that is occurring today. I would hate to ask their understanding of “Orwels 1984”. My reflection on better, hopeful, times covers the period of the late 50’s and early 60’s. That decade allowed one to Dream.

  3. Michael Larkin

    Appreciation comes easy when your father was among the combat glider forces that landed ahead of the Marines on the beaches on June 6th behind enemy lines with a 57mm anti-tank gun and 3 members of the 80th Battalion glider infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division, and lived to tell me about it (as well as combat glider invasions behind enemy lines in Southern France (Operation Dragoon), Holland (Operation Market Garden) and over the Rhine (Operation Varsity). I honor the 4 airmen in his C-47 tow plane who were shot down and killed: Pilot Jack Lawson, Co-Pilot Donald Handegaard, Crew Chief Henry Maranz and Radio Operator Charles Kittle, members of the 84th Troop Carrier Squadron, 437th Troop Carrier Group.

    1. Deborah Rambach

      Thank you for their names. I cannot visit Gettysburg, Appomatox in particular, Antietam, all of them, without weeping.

  4. David Johnson

    This was an excellent read. Although short and well focused, the tight language evoked more than what was presented. My father was an 82nd Airborne officer during WW2, gravely wounded during the Italian campaign, and ultimately medically retired. I can recall him being treated at Walter Reed off and on during the early 1950s, and he would sometimes tell me that he regretted he was unable to participate in the D-Day assault. My father ultimately succumbed to his injuries in 1957 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Thank you for this article.

  5. I make a point of watching the video of President Reagan’s D Day speech at Pointe du Hoc on June 6. Highly recommended it. It will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

    Unfortunately for the younger generation the context for D Day is ” one tribe of white supremacists fighting a different tribe of white supremacists to see who got to enslave and exploit the brown and black people of the world”.

    Not making this up, I have had this conversation with more than 1 millennial.

  6. It’s impossible to imagine the horrible intensity of Omaha Beach. Even more so to imagine the 19 year olds of today jumping off those Higgins boats.

    1. Deborah Rambach

      It’s already been stated somewhere that the majority would not do it…just like all the fighting age men coming from Arab countries leaving their countries in droves. It baffles me.

    1. Read “NormandieFront” by Vince Milano & Bruce Conner. Tells the story of D-Day+ from the German side, including specifically their defensive preparations around Omaha Beach. Book isn’t a riveting narrative (sorry), but is worth the read.

    2. The defense was aided exponentially by the geography of the cliffs. Beyond that, I’m not sure it was more defended than the others. Oh, I have also read that the paratroopers were mislocated and therefore the defense was not adequately softened up.

  7. Thomas O'Brien

    VDH, thank you for this wonderful tribute to our brave and patriotic fathers and grandfathers.

  8. Dear Dr. Hanson:
    I was honored to grow up next door to a B-17 pilot who survived without physical wounds all 25 missions and then some. Nice gentleman who owned a wholesale business that sold candy and tobacco products to retail stores. I was also honored to work with several combat vets from WWII at the beginning of my career and near the end of theirs. Quiet, strong, tough, and honorable to a fault are some characteristics I remember well and hope to have emulated somewhat since. They did not need a job title to lead! Most were men of faith and really knew how to enjoy life and their families. The characteristic I remember most though, is their humility! Thanks for remembering. I saw quite few acknowledgements in media to the event that greatly shaped the world in which we grew up. The loss and forgetting of that generation certainly is not helping our current state of affairs. Press on!

  9. My brother and I just visited Normandy and were overcome with emotion. You just feel the reality of what had taken place there in your bones.

    I recommend a trip there for any American citizens that believe in what the country stands for.

    It was truly a memorable experience.

    James York

  10. Every generation has had to deal with the “reality” of what America is. For those born in the 1880s and 90s, their fathers and uncles may have gone through the Spanish American war. Looking at the economic and social times that defined that age the children could see life was far from perfect. My grandfather was in the Navy during WWI, he would see the great depression in its full force as would my father and his brother (born in the early 20s). There was much wrong with America then and yet peoples from around the world wanted entrance into this country regardless of its ills. But given that, WWII was the great battle for the continuance of this country and the salvation of our allies. My war was Vietnam, one that appeared to have little social or political value save the idea that it should not fall to the communist onslaught to world domination on the Democrat party’s watch. On the other hand we had the great schism of the cold war where the far right saw communists in every nook and cranny of government and the left pushed cooperation with the world governments. This was the schism that produced the great split in the boomer generation, a conflict of values, one had to choose one side or the other.

    1. Thank you for your service in Vietnam. I have friends who were civilians there and they are adamant in their deep gratitude for what you and your fellow soldiers did. Please let me thank you on their behalf.

    1. Glory to the heroes who know that you don’t have to be perfect to be good. I note that they seem to have timed their counter offensive for 6 June. If we will not be inspired by our ancestors, there are others who will.

  11. I may be wrong, but I do not see this kind of fighting spirit on behalf of the Republic in America’s youth nor leadership.

    1. As a former teacher, I can tell you I sent not a few good men off to the military over the last 12 years. There still there, the new batch are just strong, silent types.

  12. Thank you Dr. Hanson for this wonderful article. I’m a Lutheran pastor in Western Colorado. One of my members, who passed away a couple of years ago, was one of those brave men who believed in America. He stormed the beaches of Normandy, and I believe it was Omaha Beach. His widow is still with us. I also recently had a member pass away in December. He enlisted and was stationed at Pearl in June of 1942. He worked on destroyers, and had some amazing stories. He told me that the ships were still smoldering when he arrived at Pearl six months after the bombing.

    We need to thank God and treasure those who fought, and fight for the freedom they won for us and the world.

    God bless you; Mike Redeker

  13. God bless each allied individual soldier in the D-Day victory, their families as well as their spirits to live on and make America Strong! D-Day was a victory for the world. Pray that it was not in vain and today’s America finds renewed strength to protect the world again. We need the same caliber of Leaders to step forward again for our nation.

  14. Shirley Gohner

    Sadly, the phony news media coverage of “Pride Month” illustrates what’s important America.

  15. Michael Sottek

    My father said his uncle never talked about the war. I remember my great uncle Tony sitting and cracking walnuts outside our home. I was around 13 and I asked him about the war. He said he was in the Battle of The Bulge and his unit was overrun. He hid under a bridge and could hear German voices as they crossed over and it was scary. I frequently think about that short conversation from my childhood. He was good American.

  16. Dennis Cleveland

    Yes, I remember and honor them every June 6. I stood on Omaha beach, 2003. Visited the allied cemetery in Normandy. Walked the square at St. Merigles. Witnessed the bullet holes remaining in the church where the fire fight took place. I do remember who they were, what they did for freedom and what we owe them. Lest we not forget.
    Dennis Cleveland

  17. fletcher darquea

    “They’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us…they can’t get away this time!”

    -Chesty Puller, American Soldier

  18. My father landed at Omaha Beach 6/6/44. I made the trip in 2014 to stand on the beach that changed my father’s life. He fought on through Europe and the Battle of the Bulge. He returned home, married, had a family and lived a quiet life to the age of 95. However, he was not the carefree, fun loving person who left home to fight through a World War. He was changed forever. He saw things that couldn’t be unseen even though never discussed. This takes me to today. Former President Trump being indicted once again. My father was not a political being but I can guarantee this is not the country he envisioned when fighting so many decades ago. The only question to be asked, was his sacrifice a waste. Today I would have to tell this American Hero yes. Your sacrifice was a waste.

  19. Thomas Herring

    I’m glad I served in Submarines and my Dad (WW II) in Navy Air.

    These poor ground pounders really had it rough.

    RIP all those who died there defending our Nation.

    May it not have been in vain.

  20. Thank you for helping us to remember this history is important
    My father, father in law and 4 uncles served in WWII
    including my uncle Emil who was shot down in Italy and spent 30 days behind enemy lines
    They never talked about what they did
    They saw it as their duty
    I was fortunate to talk to my last uncle Mike when he was 93 and found out some of what he did
    Scary stuff. When I asked him what he was thinking seeing a friend shot and die his reply with a shrug was “What are you going to do?”
    He did have a Purple Heart

  21. Laurel Smith, I often feel that way when I remember my Great Great Grandfather at 41, and 7 kids back home in Minnesota, died in a Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, GA. Was the war to Amend the nation and free slaves worth it?

  22. I can only imagine what many of these hero WWII veterans would think if they could come back and see the country they fought and died for become the banana republic that it’s become. They were truly “The Greatest Generation”, and we owe them more than anyone can ever imagine. This makes it even worse to see what our country has been driven to by our professional politicians. As someone noted above, more press has been given by the fake news to pride activities than to the anniversary of D-Day.

  23. 2 comments–
    1, Watch the first 10 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” to see what D-Day was like.
    2, I have felt for a long time that thousands of American and Allied soldiers died unnecessarily during WW2 b/c of the incompetence of the American military command. D-Day is one of the best examples of that. It didn’t have to be that way.

  24. Michael L. Clark Clark

    My dad, Harry L. Clark, fought with the 4th Marine Raider Battalion in the Pacific. He had a hard scrabble upbringing during the depression. Poor, but proud to be an American. Victor is right. The men who fought in WWII were the greatest generation to whom we progeny still have much to learn from about patriotism and which values to cherish.

  25. James Sherrard

    On June 6th I went to a pub frequented by elder American patriots, many Vietnam and some from Iraq, and Afghanistan. The pub also has a younger faction some 25-35 years old. The conversation turned to the movie Saving Private Ryan. The sadness when the old solders is on his knees asking if, “He has lived the good life”. Many of those under 30-40 were listening and had no education or memory learning about Overload, much less WW-2. To their wiliness to learn they did listen and asked questions. But they are worlds away from the conflict, the history and how it does mold current events. My father was a WW-2 US Marine, and he landed on four islands in the South Pacific and fought the Japanese. He rarely spoke about the war and what he did. My father did lead the good life in memories of those he left behind on the beaches of Saipan, Tinian, Tarawa and Okinawa

  26. Thank you Victor for remembering our Greatest Generation. So terribly sad to see the country we now live in that these me fought so bravely for. My Dad was in the Pacific during the war as were his 2 brothers and one great uncle. My great uncle was never the same when he returned.

  27. I notice that the names of those making commentary are not ethnic, with the exception of the historically well integrated Italian surnames. My point is to underscore Dr Hanson’s admonition that immigrants should be carefully selected and required to learn our history so that they may be successfully assimilated into our culture. Their lack of presence confirms we are doing a poor job at ensuring the survival of our nation…

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