On this morning 76 years ago as dawn was breaking in Europe, members of what journalist Tom Brokaw would call “The Greatest Generation” boarded landing craft off the coast of France.
During the night, British and American paratroopers began landing inland in the Normandy region of France.
On June 5, 1944, the Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, had broadcast to troops from nations at war with Nazi Germany invasion orders that began:
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces:
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. ...”
It was far from given that the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, would be successful. The day before, Eisenhower wrote a letter in case the landings failed in which he accepted blame or fault.
But the landings were successful, yet at a price — thousands of Allied troops died during D-Day. It would take nearly a year before Nazi Germany fell, followed three months later with the surrender of Japan to end World War II.
While there were other historically significant battles during World War II — Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Midway and others — D-Day, to many, is the battle that stands out.
All told, nearly 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. On the home front, millions of others aided the war effort. Those included women, minorities, elderly and others who were previously shunned from entering factory jobs and the like.
As Brokaw noted in his book, “The Greatest Generation,” these were the same people who had grown up suffering the effects of the Depression.
“At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria and the coral islands of the Pacific,” Brokaw wrote.
“They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world.”
Brokaw has his critics. They cite the return of society’s views of women and minorities to prewar standards after the troops came home. They cite the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war.
There is no doubt, though, that they were — and are, although their numbers are dwindling with most in their 90s — a great generation of Americans.
• Dave Mathews
Editor’s note: A version of this editorial first appeared on June 6, 2016.