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June 6, 1944: The Most Important Day of the Twentieth Century

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On June 5, 1944, standing in his headquarters watching it rain, General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, pulled out a pencil and scribbled a short note he hoped he wouldn’t have to use. 

Our landings in Normandy have failed, he wrote, and he had ordered their withdrawal. The decision to attack there and then had been his, so “if any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” He was so preoccupied with worry he wrote “July” on it instead of “June.” He folded the paper and put it in his jacket pocket. As things transpired, the landings did not fail and the whole war changed. The note stayed in his pocket.

Sometimes I’m asked by my students (alongside the perennial question “Who’s the worst president?”) whether there’s a most important day of the twentieth century. I always answer June 6, 1944: the day the Allies successfully put an army ashore in Northern France whose sole purpose was the total destruction of Nazi Germany.

From the beginning of the alliance against Germany, the U.S. and the British offered competing strategic visions of what should be done. The British—and particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill—were wary of massive across-the-beach assaults into the teeth of heavily prepared positions. For a while, the British carried the debate and Allied operations against the Nazi army proceeded from North Africa, to Sicily, to Italy, and then crept northward up the peninsula toward Rome. American planners, however, knew that the forces needed to crush Germany couldn’t get to Berlin by slogging over the Italian Alps and that putting an army directly into Northern Europe was unavoidable.

Those of us who put some stock in movies as ways of keeping history alive were very encouraged by 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. The first half hour of that Academy Award-winning film portrayed the Normandy landings with an accuracy that astonished moviegoers and had more people talking about Operation Overlord than at any time since 1944. At the time at least, the movie gave D-Day a strong boost of cultural awareness that historians hoped might not quickly wane. But as time has passed, that movie, like the invasion it commemorates, has gradually faded back away from the attention of younger audiences. The invasion now rarely makes the cut for information about WWII that’s given to high school history classes. Students don’t know what it was all about.

The Normandy landings of seventy-one years ago transformed the generic military term “D-Day” into a proper noun. Actually, by the summer of 1944 there had already been costly D-day’s in Sicily and Italy the year before. And there was a hellish D-day on every Japanese-held island in the Pacific.

There was also a less well-known D-Day in the south of France, just two months after Normandy. This was the route, in fact, by which Audie Murphy, the most decorated combat soldier of the war, came to fight in France where he would gain his fame. Part of the invasion force included the storied 3rd Infantry Division, and in August of 1944 Murphy was a staff sergeant in the division’s 15th regiment. On the morning of August 15, Murphy came ashore in the first wave of soldiers, watching for enemy fire and picking his way gingerly across the heavily-mined beach. To his left, a soldier was killed instantly by an errant step. Later that afternoon on a hillside just inland, Murphy won the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second highest award for valor, when he charged headlong into German machine gun nests after his best friend, Private Lattie Tipton, died in his arms from a single sniper’s bullet.

But even so, it was at Normandy where the overall stakes were the highest, and the term “D-Day” is now inextricably linked with June 6, 1944. Considering its importance, the historic shorthand is not inappropriate.

No account of that day is more vivid than that of American journalist Ernie Pyle who was there to see it. “Now that it is over,” he reflected a short time later, “it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.” Pyle couldn’t tell his readers back in the states all that he knew just yet, but “before long it will be permitted to name the units that did it. Then you will know to whom this glory should go.” His readers soon learned that glory belonged to the 1st, 4th, and 29th Infantry divisions.

After all the intervening decades, all the attention of historians and Hollywood, it remains Pyle himself who best explained why people should always remember June 6. He described for his readers the sacrifices involved, “so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.” Today, faced with the dwindling numbers of WWII veterans, it falls to us to renew that gratitude while we still can.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and is the author of The Price of Valor: The Life of Audie Murphy, America’s Most Decorated Hero of World War II.


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