History made on D-Day, but witnesses are dying

There were other battles, other victories, other sacrifices of life and limb during World War II, but D-Day stood alone. It was not only the largest and most audacious amphibious assault in the annals of war, it was seen even on the day it happened as the beginning of the end.

In 1944, there were about 11.5 million men and women in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard – that’s more than 8 percent of the nation’s population of 138.4 million at the time. Four years earlier, there had been less than a half million men in armed service.

The United States had made a commitment to defeat the Axis powers led by Germany and Japan, and that commitment touched virtually every family. By the summer of 1944, Americans were hungry for a sign that their investment in this epic struggle was paying dividends. That sign came on June 6, 1944.

The Extra edition of The Vindicator published that day had a bold front page headline, “Allies Invade France,” but inside it carried two striking, large ads placed by the downtown department stores, McKelvey’s and Strouss-Hirshberg’s.

The McKelvey ad featured a rendering of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower leading his men into battle. “This, at last, is the day, the hour of deliverance, the moment of moments, the beginning of the triumphal end,” it read.

The Strouss ad played off Gen. John Pershing’s declaration to France in 1917, “Lafayette, we are here.” America had not forgotten that the cause of freedom was as sacred to her as it was to France, the ad declared. Across the bottom was an appeal to support the troops by buying war bonds.

Tipping point

These ads were obviously prepared well in advance, with orders that they be published when the day was at hand. After more than two years at war, Americans knew there would be a tipping point and they were preparing for it. They also knew that even in victory, the cost would be high.

In this space on that day, a Vindicator editorialist wrote: “D-Day ... will surely change the face of the earth and the lives of its people.” And it somberly observed, “In many a home today the prayers are personal – for sons, brothers and husbands whose lives are at stake on the shores of far-off France.”

Even as typesetters in The Vindicator’s composing room produced lines of type in hot lead so that the words written by war correspondents 3,700 miles away could be printed for its readers, men – predominantly young men – were fighting fiercely for their lives on Normandy’s beaches. And before those pages rolled off the press, more than 2,000 American soldiers would die. Thousands more would die in subsequent heavy fighting as the Allied troops pushed further into France, driving the Germans eastward.

It would be 11 months before Germany surrendered, 14 months until the Japanese surrendered. But after D-Day, Americans had reason to believe that victory was inevitable.

In the weeks following, Youngstown families began to receive word from the War Department that some of their sons, brothers and husbands had been wounded or killed in action. The first local death from D-Day reported in the paper was that of George F. Wheeler, Jr., 30, of Poland, a paratrooper killed June 6 in France.

Other families would get similarly devastating news from Normandy and from other theaters of war for more than a year.

Newscaster Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation” during a broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the invasion in 1994 and wrote a book by that title a few years later. That generation, great as it was, is dwindling. Only an estimated 450,000 of some 16 million veterans who served through the course of the war survive. Only a small percentage of those were on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago. The very youngest of them is in their low-90s.

All of them suffered and too many died for their gallantry to be forgotten. They must be remembered today, tomorrow and on those days in the future when the last of those who shared in the agony and ecstasy of D-Day is gone.