As 60th Anniversary Dawns, D-Day Vets Remember

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2004

On June 6, 1944, around dawn, Allied forces pulled off the largest land invasion by sea in the history of warfare.

Landing on the shores of Normandy, France, 156,000 American, British, and Canadian troops stormed five code-named beaches between the Orne estuary and the Cotentin Peninsula: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah.

The U.S. section of the force, numbering 73,000, attacked at Omaha and Utah beaches. By day's end, Allied troops had made sizable inroads on all five beaches, and the Allied plan to invade Germany via France had achieved its first step toward success.

Prism of the Present

Author and war historian Tom Allen will be leading his fourth group to the D-Day landing sites for National Geographic Expeditions, this time to mark the invasion's 60th anniversary. National Geographic Expeditions is a travel program organized by National Geographic to allow the public to experience for themselves the places and cultures National Geographic covers in its media.

"When you go to the beach, it's a little bit like going to the Vietnam memorial … you're in an aura of memory that is palpable," Allen said. "You just look down at the sand and you say, There were guys who died on that sand."

It may be hard, though, for some people today to understand the full import of D-Day, Allen observed.

"There's a prism between us and D-Day. And when you look through that prism, you see the atomic bomb, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Iraqi war. You see many other military images that are so different from the image of D-Day."

D-Day stands apart, however, because of the sheer magnitude of effort and loss that occurred from sunrise to sunset. "A lot of battles last for weeks or … a campaign might go on for months," noted Allen. "But there are relatively few days in World War II where a [single] day is [when] everything happens."

The Call to Serve

For retired Lt. Col. Don Van Roosen, who left Harvard in 1943 at 18 to join the U.S. Army, enlisting "was a no-brainer for us at that time. The country was going through a great many setbacks all over the world … and I couldn't possibly sit back and not help out."

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