We live in what seems at times a fantasy world: We entertain ourselves with imaginary battles. The top movie of the year so far: “Avengers: Endgame” in which the Marvel Comics heroes battle an alien villain. The most-talked about television show: “Game of Thrones,” in which the living battled the dead and often each other — and prompted real-life military analysts to discuss how best to deploy dragons on the battlefield. Kids (and sometimes adults) stay up for hours playing video games in which digital characters blast other digital characters to smithereens.
You may find these fun. You may find these ridiculous. But either way, they dominate the cultural landscape of our world today. Seventy-five years ago this morning, though, the world was transfixed by an actual battle. Many of the young men who now are lined up to get into the latest superhero movie would have then been lined up to jump off a landing craft into the choppy waters off the coast of Normandy — or might have already been dead on the beach. They — indeed, everyone —might want to pause today and think about where they might have been if this were June 6, 1944. We already know where a disproportionate number of young men from western Virginia were that morning — in the first wave of troops to go ashore. We now remember “the Bedford boys” because 34 men from Bedford were among those who rushed headlong into the Nazi defenses of “Fortress Europe” — and 23 didn’t come back, believed to be the largest per capita loss of life suffered by any American community during the war. We should remember more, though. The 29th Infantry Division that those “Bedford boys” were part of what were former National Guard units from throughout western Virginia. The telegraph machines that, more than a month later, clicked-and-clacked out the death notices ran longest in Bedford, but they tapped out their grim messages all across western Virginia — and the nation.
It’s not an overstatement to say that D-Day, as we know it now, was one of the most important battles in human history — a hinge point between two very different futures. The success of D-Day put Allied armies ashore in France and less than a year later they had demolished the Nazi regime that had set the continent aflame. Everything we know as the post-war order flowed from that cloudy, and bloody, June morning in 1944.
What if D-Day had failed? We can only speculate, but it’s clear the world would look very different. Britain would have lost its only army; Winston Churchill’s government might have fallen. Germany would have had more time to make its V-2 missiles operational, making Britain even more vulnerable. The Holocaust would have killed even more people. The British military historian John Keegan once told National Public Radio: “America would be marooned. Alone on a vast planet flooded by fascism.”
It’s popular to say that “failure is not an option,” but failure is always a possibility. Dwight Eisenhower knew that. The day before the landings, the supreme commander scratched out a statement to issue in case things went horribly wrong: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” There might have been greater strategists, or later greater presidents, but Eisenhower was undeniably great in this way: He was willing to take personal responsibility. Lots of people today could learn from his example.
Of course, D-Day did not fail. It came close, though, closer than we knew.
The largest seaborne invasion in history began with a poem. At 11:45 p.m. the night before, the BBC broadcast three lines from the poem “Autumn Song” by the French poet Paul Verlaine: “Wound my heart with a monotonous languor.” It was a pre-arranged signal to the French resistance: The time to rise up has come.
Fifteen minutes later, the British began dropping hundreds of dummy paratroopers over other parts of the French coast, hoping to trick the Germans into thinking the invasion would come elsewhere. The first man to parachute into France was a British commando, Lt. Norman Poole. He and his Special Air Services team installed amplifiers to play combat noises “and the sound of soldiers cursing.” All through the dark hours other troops parachuted and glided into France. Even before dawn came, the 82nd Airborne Division declared the village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise liberated. The rest would not be so easy.
The Allied armada arrived under cover of darkness, and a serendipitous break in a storm. At 5:30 a.m., right on schedule, the naval guns opened up in the pre-dawn darkness. At 6:30 a.m., as dawn broke, the landings began. It would be the last dawn many of those men would ever see. Some of “the Bedford boys,” and likely others from elsewhere, had joined the National Guard simply to earn an extra dollar as the Great Depression dragged on. Now some were dying on the beaches. The casualty rate for Company A of the 116th Regiment: 90 percent. Watching from the deck of the USS Augusta, Gen. Omar Bradley was so taken aback by the chaos on the section code-named Omaha Beach that he briefly considered evacuating. He did not. Instead, more troops jumped off their landing craft and pushed past bodies floating in the water to take their place on shore.
Everyone knew the invasion was coming, they just didn’t know when or where. German radio had started broadcasting about it since the early morning hours, but no one knew if that was a deception. Then at 9:30 a.m. the BBC broke into its regular programming: “This is John Snagge speaking. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force have just issued Communiqué No 1. Communiqué No 1: Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France. I’ll repeat that communiqué . . .”
And that’s how the world found out. By day’s end, 159,000 Allied troops were ashore in France. They could still be pushed back into the sea, but were not. Instead, they started slowing pushing back the Germans through the hedgerows of northern France.
Six weeks later, on Monday, July 17, 21-year-old Elizabeth Teass began her workday at Green’s Drug Store in downtown Bedford in the usual way. She turned on the telegraph machine and sent the customary greeting to the Western Union office in Roanoke: “GOOD MORNING. GO AHEAD. BEDFORD.” The reply came back: “GOOD MORNING. GO AHEAD. ROANOKE. WE HAVE CASUALTIE S.”
And that is why today we can indulge ourselves in fantasies.