For anyone who feels a debt of gratitude toward the Greatest Generation for its efforts in World War II, these next few days are iconic. Of all the bloody battles that were fought between 1941 and 1945, perhaps no two were more symbolic of the American experience in the war than the Battle of Midway (June 4-7, 1942) and the Normandy invasion (D-Day, June 6, 1944).
Midway was fought in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack on the fleet in Oahu had dealt a crippling blow to the U.S. Navy, virtually eliminating the battleship as a force in the Pacific for the next several months. The Imperial Navy further thinned the American assets during the Battle of Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942) by sinking USS LEXINGTON and inflicting extensive damage to USS YORKTOWN – two of only five U.S. carriers in the Pacific (LEXINGTON, YORKTOWN, SARATOGA, ENTERPRISE, HORNET).
In what would become a pivotal battle in WWII, Admiral Nimitz sent his only three available carriers (SARATOGA was on the west coast and was unavailable) to Midway in order to thwart a planned Japanese invasion. Codebreakers had intercepted Japanese transmissions and knew when and where the Japanese were heading. To beat them to the punch, Nimitz had to send what he had, including YORKTOWN which had been damaged just days before but had undergone a miraculous repair effort in Oahu (see “The Unsung Heroes of Midway“).
Against his three carriers was a mighty Japanese fleet – four carriers, seven battleships and a massive invasion force. The Americans went in against all odds, and against all odds emerged victorious. All four Imperial Japanese carriers were lost, with the loss of only one U.S. carrier, when YORKTOWN finally succumbed to battle damage. The Japanese would never recover, and the Battle of Midway would forever be marked as the turning point in the war in the Pacific.
Two years later on the other side of the world, young men, many of whom had never seen combat, were about to embark on the “Great Crusade” (Gen. Eisenhower) – the amphibious assault on Normandy, France. Stategically, the invasion was designed to establish a foothold on Germany’s western flank. But to the men who were there 65 years ago, it much more personal.
Approximately 156,000 Allied troops would assault Normandy on June 6th, 73,000 of them Americans. 2500 of the U.S. forces would be dead by the end of the day (D-Day Museum). The German soldiers opposing them were entrenched and proved to be brutally efficient, but by nightfall had yielded to the overwhelming forces of the Allies.
It is largely accepted that victory at the beach head was achieved through individual bravery and leadership from junior officers and NCOs who overcame seemingly indominable obstacles and pushed on.
D-Day brought the long-awaited second front, and Germany’s days were numbered. Less than a year later the war in Europe was over. (An excellent summary of D-Day can be found at the Center of Military History’s website.)
The sacrifices of our fathers were breathtaking, and preserved our way of life. Their struggles in these and other great battles all over the world saved us from a tyrannical future. Many of them would never see the fruits of their labors. It is because of their efforts that we must never forget them. It is because of what they fought for – the ideals upon which our country was founded – that we must never lower our guard.
The men and women who wear the uniform today are made of the same mettle. To them we owe our unwavering support.