By Emma Campbell-Mohn.
Emma Campbell-Mohn led a one-week D-Day Staff Ride to London, Portsmouth, Normandy and Paris with the Duke Program on American Grand Strategy. In a Staff Ride, students and alumni adopt the personas of leading D-Day figures, ranging from Allied Commander General Eisenhower to Private John Slaughter who landed on Omaha Beach. Many presented their characters on the very beaches where the Allied forces fought gallantly to free France, while others presented in front of the Churchill War Rooms or beside hard-won bridges and batteries.
In my childhood history lessons, I remember learning about the Western Front during World War II as a triumphant attack against evil for the freedom and prosperity of all humanity. Indeed, most Americans concur: 90% of Americans consider WWII a just war. The oft-repeated narrative of the Western Front depicts our flag-waving troops marching to Berlin on a mission of liberation for those subjugated under Nazi rule. While I firmly agree that WWII was a just war, I wonder if we are doing a disservice to the men and women who gave their lives fighting for our collective freedom as we simplify their sacrifice in a triumphant story of victory. In order to recognize the sacrifices our soldiers made, we must recognize, learn and remember the horror of their fight, including the blood-soaked desperation featured in Saving Private Ryan. Let us stop and remember the gritty aspects of war such as the 4,413 Allied soldiers who died in Operation Overlord, the military name for the landings on D-Day. Only armed with the cruel reality can we truly give soldiers the recognition they deserve.
Before the Fateful Day
On April 28, 1944, a little more than a month before D-Day, Allied forces ran a practice run of an amphibious landing called Operation Tiger. The purpose was to train the soldiers to land in battlefield conditions and prepare them for the difficult landings ahead. Yet, unbeknownst to the Allies, German E-Boats were drawn to the radio chatter, unleashing a hailstorm of torpedoes on the unprepared soldiers. Over seven hundred men died during the German E-Boat attack of their practice operations.
Yet, the German E-Boats were not the most shocking part of Operation Tiger: the soldiers that bravely made it to shore were shot at with real bullets. General Eisenhower ordered that live fire be used during the operation in order to stimulate the conditions on the ground; however, he stipulated that the shooting stop when the soldiers reached the beachheads. Thus, soldiers would experiencing the environment of war without actually being shot at. The timing was off and the soldiers were met with actual bullets. Three hundred more men died from friendly fire.
Even the carnage of Operation Tiger could not prepare the men for the horrors of D-Day itself. Around 0015 on June 6th, British and American paratroopers glided onto the fields of Normandy. Many were met with unwelcome surprises. General Rommel, mastermind of the German fortifications, had flooded fields, placed sharp poles across the countryside known as Rommelspargel, and left tall hedgerows. The scattered groups of paratroopers landed across the Norman countryside, attempting to link up to meet their objectives. Over seventy-five percent of the airborne men missed their mark leading to general disorder and confusion upon meeting the ground.
The confusion, loss, and terror of the airborne landings were repeated on the beaches where, at Omaha alone, an estimated 3,686 Allied soldiers lost their lives. Around ten landing craft sank on Omaha, and men drowned because of the weight of their packs as they jumped off the boat toward the beaches. The majority of the amphibious tanks supposed to protect the men sank, leaving the soldiers without crucial firepower as they faced the onslaught of bullets raining down from German fortifications.
Yet, these horrors are not the end of the story. D-Day is a testament to the bravery these men exhibited when facing nigh impossible odds. General Norman Cota on Omaha Beach famously told the Ranger division, “Rangers, lead the way” as men were stuck behind obstacles avoiding German gunfire. With a cigar lit and a can-do attitude, Cota galvanized the troops into action and avoided what could have been a disaster on Omaha beach. Pure courage and necessity caused men to run towards the very people shooting at them.
On Utah Beach, another impressive leader likewise was undeterred by enemy fire. Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., son of President Theodore Roosevelt, led his men briskly onto the beaches, standing the entire time according to Cornelius Ryan. While there was considerably less enemy fire on Utah than Omaha in part due to navigation error when arriving on the beaches, Roosevelt’s stalwart commitment to demonstrating courage under fire greatly improved the morale of his men and, ultimately, helped lead them to victory.
The sacrifice and courage of these men, ranging from Generals to Privates, alone requires notable recognition. It is tempting to end the critical examination there: glorifying past achievements from an increasingly distant era of history without examining the implications and lessons from their actions. Yet, as the beneficiaries of their heroism, we have a duty to recollect the desperate struggle associated with their achievements and critically learn from their mistakes. The deaths from Operation Tiger could have been prevented with better planning and decrease in radio chatter so as not to alert the E-Boats. More effective intelligence-gathering methods could have mitigated the dangers of the airborne landing. Increased practice and equipment testing could have improved the tank landings on Omaha.
All these critiques point to one memorable conclusion: war is hell. Although fewer Americans died in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan than on D-Day alone, we should respect their service with full knowledge of the horrors many witnessed in combat. In recent weeks, photographer Devin Mitchell’s powerful images of PTSD have been circling around the internet as they depict the difficulties endured by service members returning home after hard-fought wars. Just as the service of those who fought on D-Day should be remembered with careful recognition of the horrors they endured, so to should recognition of our veterans be shrouded by the context they fought in. Only when we as a nation take the time to learn about their operational environment can we truly value the sacrifices they endured.