D-Day, June 6, is arguably the most identifiable World War II battle for most Americans, certainly the most recognizable event from the war after Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima.
Most of us have a working knowledge of the basic facts: Roughly 160,000 Allied soldiers took part in an air and sea invasion of France, changing the course of the war and ensuring the defeat of Nazi Germany. It was a day of horrific and frightening battles. For much of the time, the outcome hung in the balance. The ultimate victory depended more on the individual bravery of the men on the beaches during the first 12 hours than the elaborate planning during the 12 months that had led up to them.
But because that’s as much as most of us know, it distorts the greater context of what truly happened. In our minds, D-Day becomes not only an important battle and turning point, but the critical moment of World War II. After the first 24 hours passed and the divisions were on the beaches, victory was inevitable.
Except it wasn’t. In fact, the monthlong battle in Normandy that followed D-Day took many more lives than the invasion itself. The Allied strategy drawn up by British commander Bernard Montgomery was thwarted by German resistance. The Germans came perilously close to turning the front into a stalemate reminiscent of World War I. It took a daring and innovative plan, drawn up entirely by the American commander Gen. Omar Bradley (the unsung American hero of the invasion) to break the Allies out of the Normandy pocket. His plan was so successful, in fact, that the Germans reeled all the way back to their border. By rights, we should celebrate that plan and battle—known as Operation Cobra—at least equally with D-Day.
But the point is not that there are many bits of history we don’t know—that will always be the case. We can’t fill our minds up with every conceivable fact about every conceivable event important to us. But we can and should recognize that the events that do stand out—like D-Day—are symbols and stand-ins for the larger whole. We honor and remember D-Day precisely because it was part of a larger chain. The sacrifices of the men who died on the Normandy beaches remind us of the other sacrifices before and after. The bravery and courage of those men stands as a testament to the bravery and courage of all our heroes who fell in that war.