D-Day has been recounted and depicted numerous times since Allied troops first waded ashore in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 to begin the invasion of Adolph Hitler’s European fortress. In films ranging from Darryl F. Zanuck’s 1962 masterpiece The Longest Day to Steven Spielberg’s 1998 re-enactment, Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood has led the way when it comes to honoring those who gave their “last full measure of devotion” on the beaches of Normandy, commemorating one of the most archetypal events in the history of Western civilization. Archetypal events, however, shapes a nation’s self-image, making it important to keep track of where – and how well – those archetypes are being preserved.
Today, viewing that event from the wrong end of a very long telescope, it is hard to understand that the issue was very much in doubt when D-Day dawned over a stormy English channel. The invasion, after being delayed several times by bad weather, was nearly cancelled again on the night of June 5, 1944 when meteorologists could not say with certainty whether the weather would permit the vital air support missions to fly over the beaches the following morning….and the issue remained in doubt even after the troops landed.
Three things had to happen for D-Day to succeed. Someone had to have the personal courage to make the decision to launch the attack. Someone else had to make sure the attack succeeded, and a third person had to have the courage to put those two men into those positions.
The first act of courage was committed by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General George C. Marshall, who plucked an untried, recently-made brigadier general who had never commanded men in combat from relative obscurity, and jumped him over dozens of more senior officers to make him the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater of Operations. Dwight David Eisenhower, then 52, was an intellectual general, a logician and a planner, who has served as General Douglas MacArthur’s aide, and wrote brilliant papers about military issues. Marshall, himself an intellectual general, had plenty of blooded, battle ready generals to choose from, but none of them were as smart as “that damned Eisenhower,” as he was sometimes called.
Eisenhower who would eventually become the 34th president of the United States, had that rarest of all forms of bravery, the courage it takes to order other men into combat, and into certain death, in order to achieve the highest of all military objectives….peace. While others chomped at the bit, anxious to launch their invasion of Europe before the waiting troops lost their edge, Eisenhower held back. When others advised him not to strike in the face of an impending storm, Eisenhower pushed the button and sent hundreds of thousands of men into hell. His timing was perfect. Hitler was caught with his pants down. Eisenhower did one other thing. He brought a lifelong friend along with him into his command: a man named Roosevelt.
The third act of bravery was the quiet, individual heroism of a man who was not supposed to be on the beaches of Normandy in the first place. Theodore Roosevelt, III, eldest son of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, II, and a fifth cousin of the current president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a soldier’s general. A highly decorated veteran of the First World War, widely revered for the manner in which he took care of his troops, Roosevelt had been a businessman, a politician, and a political appointee between the two wars, serving stints as governor of Puerto Rico and Governor General of the Philippines, before re-enlisting at the outbreak of the Second World War. At 56, he was the oldest man to make the Normandy landing, something he was only allowed to do after he submitted a written protest to his commanding officer, who did not think the arthritic Roosevelt would survive the landing.
Roosevelt thus became the only general to land with his troops during the first wave of the Allied attack, which made him the de facto ground commander of the entire invasion. Delivered more than a mile off their intending landing point, in the midst of mass confusion, Roosevelt personally led the reconnaissance that located a weak point in the German lines, reorganized the troops at his disposal, and led the attack that broke through the German lines and turned the tide of an invasion that was on the verge of being thrown back into the sea. At the precise moment when his officers and men were succumbing to the fear of failure because everything seemed out of whack, not according to plan, he calmly said, “We will start the war from right here,” which has to be the least heroic heroic remark ever to turn the tide of a battle, but that was precisely what it did.
Roosevelt’s little known adventure was overshadowed by his tragic death, just over a month after the invasion…but he did not die in battle. He succumbed instead to a heart attack, a result of the lingering damage from the wounds he received during the First World War, on the eve of his promotion to major general. His son, Captain Quentin Roosevelt, who fought by his father’s side during the breakthrough, was reportedly by his side when he died. Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the Day of Days, making him one of only two father and son teams to have received his nation’s highest military honor. (Roosevelt’s father, the President Teddy Roosevelt, received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Spanish American war of 1898, when he led his Rough Riders on the charge against San Juan Hill in Cuba. The other father and son team were Arthur MacArthur, who received his medal for leading the Union charge up Missionary Hill in the Chattanooga campaign of the Civil War, and General Douglas MacArthur, who was awarded the Medal of Honor as a brigadier general during World War I.)
Those are the kinds of stories that the previous generation of children were thrilled with by their parents, parents who lived through the events they told their children about. People do not read history any more, and history is taught very poorly in American classrooms today….leaving Hollywood to pick up the slack when it comes to preserving our history and the heritage of bravery to which all Americans are entitled.
Where Hollywood has led, generations of Americans have followed, consuming war-themed films that, over the decades, have finally replaced authentic recollections of what happened during World War II, with the celluloid impersonations of those real events, to the point where viewing the films has become an acceptable substitute for reliving the actual events, walking the same beaches, climbing the same abutments, and seeing the graves of the fallen. Once upon a time, visiting battlefields was a peculiarly American pursuit; we preserve our battlefields from both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War to such a great extent that, every year, “reenactors” flock to them to recreate scenes from the Battle of Gettysburg and other famous Civil War battles .
That was how Americans used to venerate those who have laid down their lives for their nation. Now, we go to the movies, or watch them on television, and that is not really a bad thing….because there really is no other way to “re-experience” those events now that last surviving members of the Greatest Generation are passing away. Even the youngest soldiers to land on Omaha Beach that fatal day are now 87 years old. One Scottish Normandy veteran, 89 year old Jock Hutton, parachuted into the same field where he and his teammates landed 70 years ago to commemorate the occasion.
This will be the last roundup for many of the surviving veterans. Men who have not seen each other for 70 years made the trip back to Normandy this year to receive the ovations of those who remember their accomplishments with the respect they deserve. Others, watch the films….and that is not altogether inappropriate, because World War II was the first war that was extensively documented on film in moving pictures, and many of the people back at home in the United States, only knew what they knew about the war from the wartime news reels they saw in the theaters of the time.
The two films in question display remarkably different attitudes about the invasion, and World War II itself. The Longest Day was a big budget extravaganza – Darryl F. Zanuck did not make small films – with an enormous cast of iconic American, British, French and German actors commanded by four directors in an undertaking nearly as complex as the original D-Day landing itself. Made at a time before computer graphics were even available, Zanuck had to stage scenes using real ships, real planes, and real people to simulate the landings. Many of the performers who acted in that film had seen actual combat during World War II, but only two veterans of the assault appear in the film. Richard Todd (Major Howard in the film) actually took part in the attack on the Pegasus Bridge, which was led by the colorful Lord Lovat (played by Peter Lawford in the film), but he chose not to play himself. Joseph Lowe, one of the Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, was still in the service in 1962, and is shown in the film doing precisely what he did in 1944 as a U.S. Army extra, loaned to Zanuck for the shoot.
Nevertheless, while there were very few Normandy veterans in front of the cameras, there were quite a few behind the cameras serving as technical advisers, making The Longest Day one of the most accurate World War II war films….as it had to be, because there many people still alive who were there at the time, who landed on the beaches, and knew exactly what it was like, what happened, and when it happened.
Saving Private Ryan was a very different film, much smaller in its scope, a more personal view of the war than Zanuck’s big budget epic. The key difference between the two films was, in fact, that virtually no one who was involved in the making of Private Ryan was even alive on June 6, 1944. More importantly from the standpoint of verisimilitude, while Private Ryan covers – with vivid accuracy – many of the actual events around the Normandy campaign, the film revolves around a single, fictional, small unit engagement that was fabricated from a number of different accounts of various small unit event. So, while Spielberg and Hanks labored to make the film as accurate as possible, it is impossible to make a film about a fictional event accurate because there is nothing to compare it to.
At a time when American exceptionalism has been called into question, when the nation’s resolve to excel seems to have flagged, it might be a good time to review these films and think about the America they portray and what has happened to that America since then. This D-Day, 70 years after the fact, still brings politicians, veterans, and the survivors of the fallen back to the beaches and grave yards of Normandy, as the world remembers again the burden that America once shouldered for the world that was back then. Some years hence, five or ten years from now, the families will stay home because there will be no more veterans to honor, and when the families stay home, the politicians will not come back again either. D-Day plus 80 may not be celebrated at all.
Commentary by Alan M. Milner, National News Editor