An image of a statue in Normandy.

The Legacy of D-Day and Normandy

Keith Nightingale, author of The Human Face of D-Day, reflects on what the invasion of Normandy meant for the world as the 80th anniversary draws near. To hear more of Keith’s thoughts on the subject, checkout his recent interview with The History Shelf.

Normandy is as much a spirit as a thing.  On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched the largest single day operation in the history of our civilization.  Not only did it coalesce the might of our Nations, but it also focused the deep core spirit that embodies what we are all about.

With more than 5 thousand killed that day and thousands more wounded, we paid in blood to rebirth what we are all about.

The five separate beaches held the best our Nations had to offer with the participants deeply appreciative and aware of the purpose of their endeavor. By 0430, there were 140,000 men afloat in Higgins boats bound for those beaches in supremely confined space. Seasick and sea-soaked in 50-degree temperature, they debarked to hell on earth to face the strongest foe they had ever encountered.

Gripping the wet sand, they bled, died and re-took the land so long occupied by a cruel and implacable enemy.  They returned France to its honor and rightful place among Nations.  And in so doing, they paid in blood the price of retaining and nurturing Liberty.

Earlier, beginning at approximately 2230 English Double Daylight Savings Time, the Airborne Pathfinders took off from myriad bases throughout England to coalesce in support of five small patches of Occupied France.

Close behind was a stream of more than 800 C47’s carrying the bulk of three Airborne Divisions to precise spots on the ground that would support the larger force afloat. These aircraft were protected by thousands of fighter aircraft and even more bombers to prepare the ground.

Participants saw this incredible sea and air armada and recognized for the first time what they were part of.

Years later, soldiers who had participated all were still in awe as to the forces finally assembled, coordinated and deposited upon France.  They spoke of the thousands of planes and ships they saw and only then understood that they were part of something larger than themselves. More importantly, the sight of that assembled mass gave each the awareness that they would win!

The extreme complexity of the operation, even today, boggles the mind and stirs the soul. The creation and exploitation of this massive force-vastly more than the Allies today could muster-was done without the aid of computers and the myriad technical assistance we take for granted today. It was simply people knowing and understanding their role and doing it.

Thousands from senior generals to junior leaders worked in their unique worlds with a single purpose in mind.  It was a coalition of many individuals to make a whole. The fact that it actually occurred is a miracle in itself. And it was.

Normandy is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The cemeteries of the invasion ground attest to the price that was willingly paid.

Very rarely, and perhaps only once, has so much of our Civilization coalesced to underwrite the heart of our interpretation of Nationhood and the value of man.

Walk the beaches, see the drop zones, read the hundreds of monuments the French independently built to honor the spirit, sacrifice and redemption that Normandy represents.

Each of us, in our inner self, is part of Normandy and Normandy will always be part of us and our successor citizens.

Keith Nightingale was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in 1965 from Claremont McKenna College. He graduated from Airborne, Jumpmaster, and Ranger Schools and retired as a colonel in 1993. He presently serves as a consultant and advisor to several government personalities and organizations. Col (Ret) Nightingale is a member of the 82nd Airborne and Ranger Halls of Fame.