Saturday, June 6, 2015


Among the eloquent oratory attending the any D-Day anniversary is a frequent refrain: “The Greatest Generation” preserved America’s freedom.  It is, however, a gross overstatement.  The plain fact is that neither Germany nor Japan ever had the ability to conquer America.

By June 1944, both Axis powers had lost control of the sea, besides which they lacked the ships and manpower to occupy North America. (If Hitler was unable to invade Britain in 1940, how could he occupy America?)  In fact, the Axis already was fatally overextended on the Eurasian landmass and in China.

Even today, orators continue overstating the threat to America’s freedom.  While our security may be at risk in the war on terror, our freedom is as secure as We The People will tolerate.  Not even during the height (or depth) of the Cold War was American freedom at stake. The Soviet Union had the power to destroy us, but never could have enslaved us. Only Americans have the ability to deprive Americans of their freedom.

What, then, was America’s stake on Norman beaches?

The question answers itself. At stake was Western Civilization, and the freedom of most of Europe. France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway and other nations awaited liberation. In fact, so did Germany and its European allies: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Sadly, many of them merely exchanged one oppressor for another: Nazism for Communism.

In June 1944 a celestial observer in low orbit would have marveled at the immense breadth and variety of violence on Planet Earth.  It was a watershed period in World War II, and not only Operation Overlord in Normandy on June 6.   That month truly defined the phrase “world war.”

On the fourth Allied forces entered Rome, liberating the Eternal City after nine months of muddy, bloody slogging up the Italian boot.  The U.S. Fifth Army gained the credit but the victory also belonged to Britons, New Zealanders, South Africans, Frenchmen, Poles, Indians and Gurkhas; even some Brazilians.  But at the end of the war in May 1945, enemy forces still owned northern Italy. In fact, the Axis-- outnumbered six to one and out-produced beyond computing--tied the rest of the world in knots for six years, including America, the British Empire, China, and the Soviet Union.

Also in Italy, the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force flew its first shuttle mission to Russia.  Between June 2 and 11, nearly 200 bombers and fighters attacked German targets in Romania while staging out of Soviet bases.

Meanwhile on the Eurasian landmass, Russia prepared a massive blow.  Along the Donets the Wehrmacht still occupied land several hundred miles east of Kiev.  Four Soviet army groups--124 divisions with 1.2 million men--were poised to strike, a cocked fist with an armored avalanche of 5,200 tanks and massive artillery on a scale that only Russians have ever managed.  Half a million Germans awaited the blow on Army Group Center.

In northeastern India, British Empire forces shot it out with determined Japanese attackers (the only kind the Emperor possessed) at a place called Imphal.  It was valuable more for its position than anything intrinsic: Imphal controlled the only all-weather highway on the Burmese frontier.  In a dank, jungly world perennially wet, soldiers on both sides watched their uniforms mold and weapons rust almost before their eyes.  Tokyo's hope of seizing the crown colony died in the rot and decay of Manipur Province.

Meanwhile, American power also projected westward that June.  On the opposite side of the globe, Operation Forager smashed Japanese defenses in the strategic Mariana Islands, 1,500 miles south of Tokyo.  Conquest of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian involved the greatest aircraft carrier battle of all time, and put B-29 bombers within range of Japan itself.  Significantly, 80 percent of the ships in the Fifth Fleet had been commissioned in the two and a half years since Pearl Harbor.

Federal spending reached $91.3 billion in 1944, raising the national debt to $204 billion.  But unemployment ran merely 1.2 percent, and more than a few servicemen reckoned that at least one percent of the population was unemployable.

Like every other operation, Overlord turned on logistics. The vital aspect of D-Day that’s usually overlooked was the tremendous task of moving men and materiel from the New World to the Old.  Thanks to the U.S., British, and Canadian navies, defeat of the U-boats by May 1943 cleared a transatlantic path to Omaha and Utah Beaches.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt already had proclaimed America the arsenal of democracy, and however undemocratic some of FDR’s allies proved, the U.S. became a global Vulcan’s forge. 

Consequently, the supply war was fought and won at home, in factories and farms.  Among other things, America manufactured 79,000 landing craft; 297,000 airplanes; 2.5 million trucks; 12.8 million rifles; and 190 million pair of boots and shoes.

For American servicemen one of the greatest events that month was passage of the GI Bill of Rights.  It provided for postwar education loans plus additional discharge pay, unemployment benefits, and social security credit for time in uniform.

So when you think of the WWII veteran, don’t allow your mental computer to default to the traditional recruiting-poster image.  The vet may have wielded a bazooka, piloted a bomber, skinned a bulldozer or a pounded a typewriter.  Additionally he—or she—may have welded steel plates in Norfolk or riveted airframes in Seattle.  But Rosie the Riveter and GI Joe formed an unbeatable team.  Between them, they helped win the war.  And in doing so, they shaped our world.