Not One, But Two Major Anniversaries of Military History are Observed this Week

By Joe Darby

This week began, as always of course, on a Monday. The date was June 6, one of the most significant dates in history.

For it was on June 6, 1944, that the Western Allies of World War II hit the beaches in Normandy — D Day. It would be the beginning of the end of the German Nazi regime, which just a few years earlier had been completely supreme in almost all of Europe. But since 1942, the Western Allies had been fighting and gaining ground on the periphery of the heart of Europe — North Africa, Sicily, Italy.

American and British bombers had been pounding German cities and industrial sites from the air. And the Nazis were completely engaged against the mighty Soviet Red Army slowly closing in from Russia. But the D-Day landings were the first thrust of the sword that would finally sever the vital arteries of the still very potent Nazi forces.

I feel a personal connection to D-Day because I was fortunate enough to visit the beaches and the battle sites almost 40 years ago, which I’ll get to in a moment. But I’d like to touch on another battle whose anniversary has just passed and that, in its own way, was just as important and just as much a turning point as Normandy was. It’s not as well known as D-Day, but I’m sure you’ve heard of it — the Battle of Midway.

Until Midway, fought in the Pacific Ocean from June 4 to June 7 1942 — eighty years ago this week — the Japanese had been running wild in the Pacific, following their Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At Pearl they took out almost all of the American battleships in the Pacific then overran the Philippines, as well as British possessions in East Asia, the Dutch East Indies and other places.

I don’t have space to go into detail on this quite complicated operation, but suffice it to say that the battle stopped the Japanese successes cold. Until Midway they had never lost a battle. After it, they never won another one. The US cracked the Japanese radio code and knew they were going to attack Midway. Lying in ambush northeast of Midway Island, American carriers launched planes that wreaked fearful revenge for Pearl Harbor. Four Japanese carriers were sent to the bottom, along with other enemy warships. We lost one carrier, right toward the end of the battle.

Some luck and hasty but correct judgments on tactics were critical to the victory. But it came down to skilled flying and bombing. After losing many torpedo planes in futile attacks, the US dive bombers caught the Japanese with their pants down — bombs, fuel tanks, idling airplanes, all making up one very combustible target on the exposed decks. In no time the enemy ships were ablaze and sinking. From here on it would all be down hill for the Empire.

My connection to D-Day is this. In 1983, leading up to the 40th anniversary that would be commemorated in 1984, I was sent to England and France to do a travel story for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, writing about things to see, places to stay, and so forth, for people who were planning to visit France for the anniversary.

My small group of journalists landed in England and visited Portsmouth, Britain’s chief naval town, where many of the troops embarked from on D-Day. Then we crossed the channel to Cherbourg and began a tour of the landing grounds. They are hallowed ground and the beaches still have an aura of intense solemnity. The inside of a German concrete bunker ,for example, just reeked with evil. The little village of St. Mere Eglise, where an American paratrooper got caught up on a church steeple, is just as it was on D-Day. We stood on the sands of Omaha, looking up at the bluffs where Germans poured intense fire down on the beach and wondered how our men ever took those heights.

But the most profound experience was the American Cemetery up on the high ground above Omaha. Beautifully maintained grave markers, crosses with an occasional Star of David mixed in, stand in perfect rows, each one representing the life of a young man who went to war but who never came home. What these soldiers did and sacrifices was necessary to end the evil Nazi regime. But what losses to our country they represent. How many future great scientists, writers, teachers, baseball players — and just good simple Americans — were cut short of their potential.

I ask that you take a moment to remember and honor them, along with all the other men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. As the saying goes, “Freedom isn’t free.” God bless ’em all.