Seventy-five years ago this week my late father, Lt. H. Bruce Smith, went ashore on Omaha Beach. He was an Army combat engineer and a demolitions expert – a sapper. The unit he had trained with went ashore on D-Day in the first wave and suffered 80 percent casualties, but because of a training accident my father was hospitalized for three weeks and then attached to a different unit that didn’t arrive in Normandy until late June.
My dad, who did not talk to me about the war until I was an adult, and then only after I got really interested in World War II, said much of the time he was in France he could hear combat but was never in it. He did experience some terrible things, including the deaths of six of his men in a fiery truck wreck.
He wrote my mother a postcard in July on which he said he was celebrating his 25th birthday by clearing a mine field in northern France. He was in the glider corps. He was in the occupation army in Germany until November 1945. He said more than once: “I was very lucky.” The brother of his best friend was not lucky; he was killed at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
His brother and my uncle was also a combat engineer in New Guinea. Both of them knew they were headed to Okinawa to join the force that would invade the main islands of Japan. When they heard that two atomic bombs had ended the war they were thrilled but mostly relieved, as were most Americans. It was apparent then, and clear now, that Japanese leadership was prepared to fight on and resist an invasion to the last Japanese soldier and civilian. It was estimated that one-half million Allied troops would die – and this would have included Russians, who had declared war on Japan one week before the bombs -- and ten million Japanese. Don’t take my word for it. Read, for example, Implacable Foes, the prize-winning account of the last year and a half of the Pacific War. Harry Truman, only five months into his presidency, made the decision to use the bombs and was second-guessed, if not vilified, for decades, but has now been vindicated by history.
My father and mother went to France for the 30th anniversary of D-Day in 1974. Years afterward I took a road trip with my dad, the purpose of which was for him to tell me from start to finish about his seven years in the Army, which began in 1941 and included two years’ service during the Korean War. When he got to June 1944 he said when he came ashore there were covered bodies of American soldiers on the beach as far as the eye could see. He then said when in 1974 he visited the nearby cemetery containing the remains of thousands of Americans: “It was so peaceful.” He could not speak for many minutes thereafter.
We must never forget D-Day. It is clear that had it not happened, or had it failed, Western Europe would have remained in Nazi hands for months, perhaps years, longer than it did. And Western Europe would have been finally liberated by the Red Army.
Recently I watched Ken Burns’ very fine documentary on World War II, The War. I recommend it highly. It is not for the faint of heart. But then neither is war.