American Enterprise Online
June 2, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd
It has been sixty years since the D Day landings at Normandy. In what would be the greatest air-sea invasion in history, the allies hurled 160,000 men, 5,000 ships, 2,300 planes and 840 gliders across the English Channel. They lost 2,400 dead in the first 24 hours—three times the number killed in a year of fighting in Iraq.
An invasion of a different kind will take place this weekend, as presidents and prime ministers descend on the Channel coast to commemorate Operation Overlord. They will intone about the lessons of history, about the importance of transatlantic partnership, about the need for sacrifice and bravery in the face of a new form of terror and tyranny And they cannot be faulted for wanting to use this occasion to draw those parallels: The allied invasion of Normandy and the allied invasion and reconstruction of Iraq are indeed pivot points in history. Now, as then, the ultimate trajectory of history will be determined by a small and bloodied band of democracies—and the warriors who defend them.
Which is why the politicians who will occupy Normandy Beach on June 6 would do well to step out of the spotlight and let the troops take this curtain call. Their story says more about the measure of a nation, the value of an alliance, the high stakes of failure, and the true cost of freedom than anything a speechwriter could pen. So I’ll take my own advice, and let the story speak for itself.
Somewhere in the mass of humanity that stormed the beaches, rode the seas and screamed through the heavens on June 6, 1944, were two individuals who embodied the American fighting man of World War II. They gave flesh and bone to Churchill’s desperate dream after Dunkirk—“the New World, with all its power and might, step[ping] forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”
One was the son of a physician, a city boy who grew up in the middle class of Middle America. In keeping with his family’s Irish roots, he was a devout Catholic. (And staying true to form, he would be a lifelong Democrat.) He went to Notre Dame during the Depression but had to leave school (and a promising golf career) to take care of his family after his father passed away. There was no time for “finding yourself.”
When war came, he enlisted as an officer in the Army Air Force. On D Day, he found himself as a second-seater in a C-47, towing gliders over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
He never cussed. When someone said something off-color or risqué, he would leave the room. Indeed, even though he had to grow up fast, he had a childlike innocence about him always. He used to quip that he didn’t find out the big secret about Santa Claus until December of 1943, when he was deployed in England.
Like so many of his generation, he was also optimistic and patriotic, stoic and humble. I guess if there was a trace of pride in him, it was the kind that he showed for his family. In fact, when his sons or grandchildren would ask what he did to earn the Silver Star his wife kept on display in the living room, he would always say, “The Army gave me that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” Then he’d grin, take a sip of beer, and change the subject. As far as I know, no one ever pried that secret from his humble heart.
Likewise, modesty and patriotism and optimism seemed hard-wired into that other D Day archetype as well. But the differences would end there. Rather than coming from a patrician family, he was a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Texas. The Dustbowl and Depression had humbled his father and dashed his own dreams of independence.
He could cuss like a sailor. He was anything but stoic. And he was a lifelong Republican. Although raised a Southern Baptist, he wasn’t much for religion. He was bothered by the hypocrisy. “Anyone who tells me ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ isn’t worth my time,” he used to say. Yet, he was always deferent to the beliefs of others; he admired it, especially when someone’s words matched their actions.
He entered the Army Air Force just out of high school and quickly became a radio operator for a signals intelligence unit detached to larger units throughout the war. He was a radioman on thirteen B-26 missions before D Day. On one of those missions, he was shot down over the Channel. After D Day, he found himself trapped, along with the 101st Airborne, in Bastogne during the Bulge. He brought back more nightmares than medals—images of Dachau and dead buddies, starving civilians and crash landings. But the nightmares didn’t poison him. He somehow rose above them.
On D Day itself, he punched through Fortress Europe in a glider, courtesy of a C-47. No one knows if it was Alfred Dowd’s plane towing Willard Eason’s glider in the predawn darkness of June 6. But I like to think these men were tethered together, if only for a moment, as they streaked into the unknown. I think about that moment often, especially around June 6. That’s because these “D Day everymen” were my grandfathers. I get my first name from Grandpa Dowd and my middle name from Grandpa Eason.
Their story has some resonance beyond the Dowd and Eason families because of what they were and what they became. I disagree with the notion that men like this are ordinary men who did extraordinary things. They did extraordinary things because they were extraordinary men, because, like silver-haired Clark Kents, they walked among us without pretense. They were extraordinary, simply and sadly, because there weren’t—and aren’t—many like them. As historian John Keegan writes in his History of Warfare, “Soldiers are not as other men.” And Normandy’s soldiers are not as other soldiers.
They are better than the rest of us, but not because they wore a uniform. They are better than us because of what they did in that uniform.Ordinary men don’t topple dictators, liberate continents, rescue civilization and then return home as if they were on a long vacation. Some say it’s wrong to put men like this on a pedestal, but I say it’s wrong not to. We need them there to remind us of the price of our freedom.
The Greatest Generation doesn’t have a monopoly on this greatness. The spirit of Utah Beach and Omaha Beach--and, yes, Sword, Juno and Gold--lives on in the liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the hundreds of thousands who hunt our enemies and protect us from an evil just as real and insidious as Hitler. Like the boys of Normandy, they are not only liberating an Old World--they are building a new one as well.