“For it is the doom of men that they forget.”
–Merlin, in “Excalibur”
June 6–a day of glory and tragedy.
The glory came 71 years ago–-on Tuesday, June 6, 1944.
On that morning, Americans awoke to learn–-from radio and newspapers–-that their soldiers had landed on the French coast of Normandy.
In Supreme Command of the Allied Expeditionary Force was American General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Overall command of ground forces was given to British General Bernard Montgomery.
Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion to liberate France from Nazi Germany, proved one of the pivotal actions of World War II.
It opened shortly after midnight, with an airborne assault of 24,000 American, British, Canadian and Free French troops.
This was followed at 6:30 a.m. by an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions on the French coast.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel–-the legendary “Desert Fox”–-commanded the German forces. For him, the first 24 hours of the battle would be decisive.
“For the Allies as well as the Germans,” he warned his staff, “it will be the longest day.”
The operation was the largest amphibious invasion in history. More than 160,000 troops landed–-73,000 Americans, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadians.
Initially, the Allied assault seemed likely to be stopped at the water’s edge–-where Rommel had always insisted it must be.
He had warned that if the Allies established a beachhead, their overwhelming advantages in numbers and airpower would eventually prove irresistible.
German machine-gunners and mortarmen wreaked a fearful toll on Allied soldiers. But commanders like U.S. General Norman Cota led their men to victory through a storm of bullets and shells.
Coming upon a group of U.S. Army Rangers taking cover behind sand dunes, Cota demanded: “What outfit is this?”
“Rangers!” yelled one of the soldiers.
“Well, Goddamnit, then, Rangers, lead the way!” shouted Cota, inspiring the soldiers to rise and charge into the enemy.
The command also gave the Rangers the motto they carry to this day.
The allied casualty figures for D-Day have been estimated at 10,000, including 4,414 dead. By nationality, the D-Day casualty figures are about 2,700 British, 946 Canadians and 6,603 Americans.
The total number of German casualties on D-Day isn’t known, but is estimated at 4,000 to 9,000.
Allied and German armies continued to clash throughout France, Belgium and Germany until May 7, 1945, when Germany finally surrendered.
But those Americans who had taken part in D-Day could be proud of having dealt a fatal blow to the evil ambitions of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
So much for the glory of June 6. Now for the tragedy–-which occurred 47 years ago, on Thursday, June 6, 1968.
Twenty-four years after D-Day, Americans awoke to learn–-mostly from TV–-that New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy had died at 1:44 a.m. of an assassin’s bullet.
He had been campaigning for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and had just won the California primary on June 4.
This had been a make-or-break event for Kennedy, a fierce critic of the seemingly endless Vietnam war.
He had won the Democratic primaries in Indiana and Nebraska, but had lost the Oregon primary to Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy.
If he could defeat McCarthy in California, Kennedy could force his rival to quit the race. That would lead to a showdown between him and Vice President Hubert Humphery for the nomination.
(President Lyndon B. Johnson had withdrawn from the race on March 31–-just 15 days after Kennedy announced his candidacy on March 16.)
After winning the California and South Dakota primaries, Kennedy gave a magnaminous victory speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles:
“I think we can end the divisions within the United States….We are a great country, an unselfish country, and a compassionate country.
“And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.”
Then he entered the hotel kitchen–-where Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian from Jordan, opened fire with a .22 revolver.
Kennedy was hit three times–once fatally in the back of the head. Five other people were also wounded.
Kennedy’s last-known words were: “Is everybody all right?” and “Jack, Jack”–-the latter clearly a reference to his beloved older brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Almost five years earlier, that brother–-then President of the United States–-had been assassinated in Dalas on November 22, 1963.
Then Robert Kennedy lost consciousness–-forever, dying in a hospital bed 24 hours later.
Kennedy had been a U.S. Attorney General (1961-1964) and Senator (1964-1968). But it was his connection to President Kennedy for which he was best-known.
His assassination–-coming so soon after that of JFK–-convinced many Americans there was something “sick” about the nation’s culture.
One of the best summaries of Robert Kennedy’s legacy was given in Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960′s, by historian William L. O’Neil:
“…He aimed so high that he must be judged for what he meant to do, and, through error and tragic accident, failed at….
“He will also be remembered as an extraordinary human being who, though hated by some, was perhaps more deeply loved by his countrymen than any man of his time.
“That too must be entered into the final account, and it is no small thing. With his death something precious disappeared from public life.”