Landing on Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944: “What chiefly stays in the mind…is the dreadful moment of stepping out into the bullets. Planners anticipated that 20,000 would be killed or wounded in a single day, more than a quarter of all those going ashore.  ‘Don’t worry if you do not survive the assault’, one officer breezily assured his men, ‘we have plenty of back-up troops who will just go in over you.’” 

Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation books began with a visit to the battlefields of Normandy to film a documentary in 1984.  He told that story a couple of weeks ago in a moving interview on NPR’s Liner Notes‘ “War and Peace.”  (Here is a link to that conversation.)   And he describes them in a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Sacrifice and the Greatest Generation.”    He had expected a week of “stirring stories, evenings of oysters and Calvados, and long runs through the countryside.”  Instead he found a life- and career-changing experience listening to and learning from the veterans as he listened to their tales and reflected on their lives.  

As I began to write the wartime accounts of that generation, I realized how much they were formed by the deprivations and lessons of the Great Depression. During that period life was about common sacrifice and going without the most ordinary items, such as enough food or new clothes.

So many veterans told me they got their first new pairs of shoes and boots when they enlisted. When I recently interviewed Walt Ehlers — a poor Kansas farm boy who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Normandy — he lit up when he described the breakfasts during basic training. “Every kind of cereal you could imagine!” he said. “And pancakes and bacon and eggs.”

As for basic training, he said putting up hay on his uncle’s farm in August was much tougher.

If you look at the old black-and- white photographs of the physicals conducted during induction, there’s no obesity in that crowd of young men. In fact, some look malnourished.

These are the same young Americans who went thousands of miles across the Atlantic and thousands of miles across the Pacific and defeated the mightiest military empires ever unleashed against us. Their sacrifices at home and on the frontlines make our current difficulties look like a walk on the beach in comparison.

The surviving members of that generation — now in their 80s and 90s — are living reminders of the good that can come from hard times. They can teach us that if we’re to get through this time of crisis a better nation with a fundamentally stronger economy, we’d better learn how to work together and organize our lives around what we need — not just what we want.

Two new books about D-Day —D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor, and  The Forgoten Voices of D-Day, by Roderick Bailey, in association with the Imperial War Museum— were recently reviewed in The Spectator (London) by Andro Linklater.

The first corrective offered by these two new histories of the operation is their reminder of the colossal risk it entailed. ‘It may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war’ confessed Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke on the eve of the invasion. The supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had even prepared a provisional press release, ‘The landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed, and I have withdrawn the troops.’

What is striking, almost shocking, today was the high casualty rate they were ready to accept in order to earn success. Even in a rehearsal, Exercise Tiger, that took place a month earlier at Slapton Sands in Devon, close to one thousand died. Planners anticipated that 20,000 would be killed or wounded in a single day, more than a quarter of all those going ashore. ‘Don’t worry if you do not survive the assault’, one officer breezily assured his men, ‘we have plenty of back-up troops who will just go in over you.’ Even before the firing started, hundreds died as paratroopers drowned in flooded fields and crews of water-going tanks capsized in the rough seas.

Yet no less remarkable was the meticulous organisation that made it possible to land 70,000 soldiers under fire within a few hours. To one German NCO, the closely marshalled fleet of 7,000 vessels looked like ‘a gigantic town on the sea’, and the 11,000 aircraft that darkened the dawn left witnesses awed. Behind it lay intricate preparation and supply lines reaching back to Scotland, Nova Scotia and Virginia. It is a flaw in both these books that they do not give General Frederick Morgan, the chief planner, his due.

What chiefly stays in the mind, however, is the dreadful moment of stepping out into the bullets.

While Linklater is impressed by Antony Beevor’s book (which is in the tradition of his Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege and The Fall of Berlin), he finds Bailey’s use of the actual words of the participants “incomparable”:  

The voices speak with utter immediacy of fear, determination, bewilderment, indifference, and unmistakable courage. Among the mayhem, however, the least martial comments stand out, like the caustic reaction of Bill Millin, piper to Lord Lovat, when asked to play the pipes under a hail of mortars and machine-gun fire, as commandos went ashore on Sword beach:

The whole thing was ridiculous, so I thought I might as well be ridiculous too. I said, ‘What tune would you like, sir?’ and he said ‘Well, play The Road to the Isles.’ I said, ‘Would you like me to march up and down?’ and he said, ‘That’ll be lovely.’ So the whole thing was ridiculous in that the bodies lying in the water were going back and forward with the tide, and I started off piping.

And Private Roebuck’s exasperation on finding a picture of Hitler in a gun emplacement his company had just captured is redolent of the self-restraint of an earlier era: ‘I smashed it to the ground with the butt of my rifle in anger. To think that that chap had caused all this trouble for us.’

Here, for the Greatest Generation on the anniversary of D-Day, is “The Road to the Isles.”