The boys of a distant summer are fading now, unsteady on their feet, many with canes and some on walkers. But when they talk of their longest day, their steps quicken, their eyes grow bright with proud remembrance of duty done.
This was the week when some of us remembered their remarkable deeds on a dark June morning 68 years ago, when the earth and time stood still and the greatest armada in history landed on the coast of France.
They’re leaving us swiftly now, dying at the rate of 800 every day, the last of the 16 million men who put on the khaki to march to the sound of the guns. Not much notice of the day was taken this year. President Obama forgot to say anything about their heroics and sacrifice. Maybe he was too busy, flying off to Hollywood to crack suggestive smutty jokes about Michelle and Ellen DeGeneres, and collecting campaign cash from a party for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Leadership Council. Even Michelle, who has lately been talking much about helping military families, was busy raising money in New York City and Philadelphia.
Homage to sacrificial courage has gone out of fashion in certain circles. The new World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, a favorite of veterans, their families and everyone else, is derided for its “triumphalism.” One critic likens it to something Mussolini could have built in Rome. Another sneers at the idea of preserving “the memory of something that ripped up half the planet, killed millions of people and took six years to run its course.”
Not so long ago, a triumph of American arms was something for everyone to celebrate. “America hates losers,” Gen. George S. Patton said in the dreary early days of the war when nothing was going right, “and that’s why we’re going to win this war.” Nothing was more important than triumph, and no triumph was more remarkable or more complete than the triumph of the allies on the five invasion beaches of Normandy.
More than half of the 5,000 ships and boats in the armada were wooden landing boats, 36 feet 3 inches long and barely armed, constructed of three-quarter inch oak, hickory and pine plywood over a skeleton of Philippine mahogany. They were designed and built by Andrew Higgins, a red-haired Irishman with the body of a heavyweight champ, quick of temper and sharp of tongue, who less than a decade earlier had been building logging boats in New Orleans for the bayous and marshes of coastal Louisiana.
Getting these wooden boats, each carrying 36 men, to the beaches was what the day was all about. If the boats failed, the invasion failed.
The boats didn’t fail, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the architect of D-Day, later called Higgins “the man who won the war.”
He had fought the Navy for a decade to get his design accepted. With the help of the Marines, whose doctrine of amphibious warfare was based on using “the Higgins boat,” he finally prevailed. But like D-Day, it was a close-run thing. A majority of all the naval vessels afloat at the end of the war were built by Higgins in New Orleans.
It’s clear to me, as I finish a book about the remarkable Mr. Higgins, that neither he nor anyone else could succeed today. He cut corners and demolished government paper-pushers to get the job done. When Ike was pressing him for more boats during the run-up to D-Day and there was no place to put finished boats while waiting for a ship to take them to Britain, he took over a street near the boatyard and put them there. There was no time to deal with bureaucrats at city hall. “If anyone objects,” he told his plant superintendent, “just tell them there’s a war on.” (The only person on the street who objected was the madam of a bordello, who said the noise disturbed amours.)
Higgins, who had fought his own war with stubborn admirals, was in Chicago when thousands rushed into Michigan Avenue to snap up extra editions of the Chicago newspapers announcing that the liberation of Europe had begun. He dispatched a telegram to be read to the gathered workers in New Orleans: “This is the day for which we have been waiting,” he told them. “Now the work of our hands, our hearts and our heads is being put to the test. We may all be inspired by the news that the first landings on the Continent were made by the Allies in our boats.”
What a day to remember.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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