category: President's Blog

D-Day Plus 80…A Moment in History the World Cannot Forget

By now you have probably heard that the Gardner-Webb University Concert Choir is traveling to France to perform as part of the 80th Anniversary of D-Day.  Like you, I am so proud that GWU students and faculty have the solemn opportunity to be present at a place where history was made, where the tide of a momentous war turned, and where so many Americans sacrificed their lives for something they saw as greater than themselves. 

June 6, 1944.  France had been occupied by Nazi Germany for four years and one month.  Much of the rest of Western Europe was likewise locked in the grip of totalitarian rule, Britain had endured a brutal bombardment from Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and on the eastern front German and Soviet forces fought each other with ferocious savagry.  America had been at war in Europe and in the Pacific since December 1941.  A sinister genocide of as yet untold proportions was being prosecuted against races and peoples locked away in a string of concentration camps that littered the map with shame and sorrow.  The prospects for humanity, for democracy, and for decency looked devastatingly bleak.

Yet, it was on that fateful day in 1944 when Allied forces launched “Operation Overlord” in an attempt to liberate Europe.  American, British, Canadian, Australian, and soldiers from other countries crossed the English Channel to establish beachheads in Normandy, France.  Those landing points acquired names that have transcended the decades…Omaha, Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah.   More than 150,000 soldiers and close to 200,000 naval personnel mobilized for the massive armada.  At day’s close, there were some 10,000 Allied casualties, with 4,414 confirmed dead.  Despite these losses, the landings at Normandy set in motion a series of battles that would ultimately push German forces back to Berlin and to complete capitulation in May 1945.

When our generation looks back today on those events 80 years ago, we tend to presume that victory was somehow inevitable.  It was not.  General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the invading forces, famously wrote two letters in preparation for June 6…one for the press if the landings succeeded, one for the world if the invasion had been repelled.  So much uncertainty surrounded D-Day, and today we can only struggle to imagine the combination of fear and valor that enveloped all those who boarded ships, landing crafts, and gliders…all those who hit the beaches and scaled steep cliffs under relentless fire…all those who traversed the hedgerows and encountered the enemy at close quarters. 

In 1989, around the time of D-Day’s 45th Anniversary, I had the privilege of making my own trip to Normandy.  What I saw and all that I learned there left a profound impression upon me.  I walked the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach, where rows upon rows of white crosses and Stars of David were in view for as far as the eye could see…the final resting place of true heroes.  I saw up close the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc where Rangers had to scale the incline amidst a barrage of bullets.  I visited Pegasus Bridge, scene of the operation’s earliest fighting, and Sainte-Mère-Église—the first French town liberated in the invasion.  I took it all in, and those memories have endured to this day.

There is no delight in celebrating the anniversary of an event that saw so many—from all sides—fight and die.  But there is respect and remembrance.  Those who took up arms in World War II have frequently been called “The Greatest Generation.”  A visit to Normandy will make abundantly clear why they earned that label of distinction.  It is my sincere hope that our Gardner-Webb students and faculty—and all those who visit France this summer for their time of remembrance—will draw their own lessons of inspiration and solemnity.  As our Concert Choir lifts up their voices in recognition of past sacrifices and in prayer for a future filled with peace, they must never forget.  The world must never forget.

Dr. William M. Downs

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