On this day we celebrate the dedication of British, Canadian, and American troops, who despite overwhelming odds, gave what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion" to the cause of a world that would live free of Nazi aggression.
When Lincoln spoke those words, he was speaking of the of the more than 7,000 killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, the largest number of American casualties in any battle to that point. To put that into perspective the American Revolution began in Lexington and Concord with the deaths of 49 Americans, and the largest single loss of American troops during the War for Independence was 1,300 under the command of General George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. To lose more than 7,000 Americans in this one battle was unheard of in that time. Yet Lincoln could most likely have never predicted the events of the 1940s. In another time, another era, another President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was left to deal with an evil empire rising on the other side of the ocean. Americans were by and large isolationist at this time, having watched as more than 200,000 of their own died in World War I a mere thirty years beforehand. A country of hardline isolationists, Americans saw little need to interfere in what many referred to as petty European squabbles. FDR though, saw things differently, and worried of a day when European aggression might reach former colonies on the other side of the ocean. In 1941, in what is known as the "Four Freedoms Speech," FDR informed Congress that for the war which had waged in Europe for 16 months made it "unhappily necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders." He called it immature and untrue to say that America could hold off the powers of Europe if they were allowed to first conquer Europe and Asia without our interference. FDR cautioned that, "As long as the aggressor nations maintain the offensive they, not we, will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack." In this State of the Union, FDR proposed what would come to be called the Lend-Lease Program, making the arms of the United States to our allies in Europe who were then fighting a difficult war. It is possible that no foreign policy has ever been as plainly spoken as this one. "Let us say to the democracies: "We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources, and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. That is our purpose and our pledge." In May of 1940, In the face of rising Nazi aggression, particularly the blitzkrieg campaign through Belgium, Holland, and France, FDR laid out his 50,000 airplanes plan. At the time, the United States Air Corp numbered only 1,200 planes, and most of them were obsolete models of World War I. There were new designs, and they existed in very limited numbers, but the United States was woefully unprepared for an air war. FDR states in the 50,000 airplanes speech that one belligerent, Germany, had more airplanes than all of the opposition nations combined, and the ability to make more in any one week than the allied nations combined. No one at the time took the 50,000 number to be a serious one, as it seemed completely unrealistic, but FDR didn't say he wanted us to make 50,000 airplanes, he said he wanted us capable of making 50,000 airplanes in a year. American manufacturers then went out and produced 7,433 airplanes in the first half of 1941, more than it had in all of 1940. By December 7, 1941, American manufacturers had produced 25,000 planes. Between Pearl Harbor and Victory in Japan, 14 AUG 1945, American manufacturers produced nearly 275,000 more planes. From a production capacity of fewer than 6,000, in only four years time, Americans had built more than 300,000 planes, well over the 50,000 per year capacity that FDR called for. Yet, today is truly about the men who made that machinery work. For a great war machine is nothing without great warriors. The British Empire, in an era where the old saying still rang true, "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire", landed more than 83,000 troops as part of the British Second Army. They were joined on the beaches of Normandy by 73,000 American soldiers, including more than 15,000 airborne infantry. Of those more than 150,000 troops, more than 4,000 would die on 6 JUN 1944. In the coming days, these units would be decimated by further casualties, more wounded, more dead, more missing in action. When the war finally ended, more than 400,000 Americans would die in service to their country and the cause of freedom. There is no doubt that the men and women who served in our armed forces, and served at home to supply our armed forces, absolutely earned the title bestowed upon them by Tom Brokaw, who said that "it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced."
I can hardly imagine what must have been going through the minds of those young men as the sat upon floating barges, barely armored, and inexorably making their way towards the beaches of Normandy. The men aboard those ships did not leave American seeking fame or fortune, but rather looking towards the future, a future in which all men could be free. They sat aboard those rickety boats, the wind and surf combining to soak them to the core, knowing that when the landing ramp dropped they would be facing an enemy who was ready to die for what they believed in. Those men got off those boats and assailed the beaches of France that day for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do. For those of them that were lucky enough to return home at the end of the war, the work had just begun, as it was this generation that also built America into a superpower, known throughout the world. On this day, the anniversary of D-Day, we thank not only the Americans who lose their lives that day, but we thank the British soldiers next to them, the Canadians who valiantly crossed the ocean and joined the fight, and the Australians who provided air support for the RAF that day. The debt of gratitude we owe these men isn't just an American debt, it is a debt that all free people in the world owe to the greatest generation ever produced. I sit here writing this, wishing I could personally thank every World War II veteran who fought for this country, and this world. Sadly though, we are losing that Greatest Generation. In February 2009 the median age of a World War II veteran was 86 years old. In November 2011 the Department of Veteran Affairs estimated that 1.7 million World War II veterans were still alive, but that they were dying at the rate of approximately 850 every day. That means in November of 2011 we were approximately 5 years away from the last members of that greatest generation leaving us forever.
As a history buff it bothers me that so much leaves the world each day as each of these veterans passes on. I'm reminded of Albert Woolson, born in Antwerp, New York, who was the last surviving member of the Union Army of the Civil War. Mr. Woolson enlisted as the company drummer, and his unit never saw action, but he was part of the great war machine of the North. Who will carry on the work and stories of this greatest generation? I can't help but feel like every time a World War II veteran passes on we're losing ourselves a little bit, the unrecorded personal histories of this war, this time in world history. Today though, is a day of thanks. General Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a message that was to be read to all members of the armed forces that concluded with "Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking." We know now, looking back on history with 20/20 vision, that the Almighty was with us in our time of need, but that makes it no less important to recognize the instruments of his works. To the more sixteen million members of the United States Armed Forces during World War II, a thank you. I shudder to think of a world where you did not make this sacrifice.