"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle.
We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
General Dwight David Eisenhower, D Day Order, 6 June 1944
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord - the invasion of Normandy by Allied forces - I am reminded of a powerful moment I experienced over twenty years ago in London as if it happened just yesterday.
It has been said that the best way to get to know a city is by foot. There is no way to quantify how many miles I walked through the streets of London during my three years of living in the United Kingdom while in graduate school, but it was a very substantial amount. Knowing London as I do, Dr. Samuel Johnson was spot-on with this assessment: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." It is my favorite city in the world and I find it endlessly fascinating.
But on this particular May night in 1993, I enjoyed a moment of serendipity which has stayed with me for decades. Walking back to Pall Mall in the West End, I took my traditional route down the Duke of York Street and through St. James's Square. I had traversed this path countless times but on this certain night, there was something that caught my attention in a most unusual way. As one enters the square from the north end, the Norfolk House - constructed in 1722 for the Duke of Norfolk - is on the left. I had passed it innumerable times but never noticed a distinctive plaque affixed to the wall of the House.
As I walked closer, the words "Operation OVERLORD" in bold letters immediately caught my eye. I read the copy above these last words, only to learn that in this very location, Dwight David Eisenhower, the "Supreme Allied Commander Allied Expeditionary Force in conjunction with the commanders of the fighting services of the Allied Nations and the authorities in Washington and London he planned and launched Operation 'Overlord' for the liberation of North West Europe."
At that moment, it is hard to describe the wave of astonishment and emotion that flooded over me. I tried to imagine the persistent doubt and nagging questions General Eisenhower and his colleagues grappled with in this very location. I was staring up at history. True, it was an inanimate object but knowing the debates, the questions, the uncertainty of that moment leading up to the order in June of 1944 - I looked up absolutely flabbergasted by the temerity of these men and their unstinting faith in and commitment to those they sent into the teeth of the German forces. The Norfolk House seemed to come to life as I contemplated what had happened inside those walls.
While there were innumerable questions surrounding the Normandy invasion, one thing was certain: thousands of people would die. Eisenhower knew this and so did everyone else involved in the conception and deployment of the plan. Given Eisenhower's experience and the inevitably of staggering casualties, this observation from the General is even more sobering: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
But the only thing more brutal and stupid would be to see the Nazi regime and its hallucinogenic vision of world domination come to fruition. Eisenhower knew this and he was willing to risk whatever it took to order Operation Overlord. With faith in his men and a belief in the plan, he ordered the action and the tide of the war was changed forever.
During these days of reflection, I stand in awe of those brave men who gave all so that a plan could be effected - with its ultimate outcome anything but guaranteed - and a victory secured. And I will never forget the feelings I had on that Spring evening as I looked up at the place where the entire plan was conceived and enacted. What the current generation owes to those who have gone before and sacrificed so much can never be repaid. But anniversaries like this one give us the chance to pause, to reflect, and to thank.