Instinctively, Americans know there is no greater sacrifice than to give your life for your loved ones, for your country and for the defense of liberty. This is one of the highest values of American citizenry and patriotism.
On Monday, May 26, we will honor all of our American brothers and sisters who made that sacred sacrifice.
The numbers are staggering. Add in the wounded, and the total casualties among our soldiers top 2.5 million from the formation of our nation in 1776.
For context, perhaps 656,367 combat deaths and more than 1.4 million combat wounded don’t seem like that many when compared to the 314 million people who inhabit the United States.
But think of the extent of those war deaths and casualties and the fact each of those soldiers is a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin and friend. When you extrapolate and think of the effects of those who died, think back to the anguish that preoccupied our nation in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight 93. That was for only — only — 3,000 deaths. Now multiply that 3,000 by 400 and then by two or three or four and you begin to see the price and value of liberty.
And yet, it’s easy to have the sense that not nearly enough Americans have the reverence and respect they should for those who died for liberty. We Americans are great at taking freedom for granted. So many Americans, preoccupied with themselves, just don’t connect to the costs of war and freedom.
Last week on an elevator in Washington, D.C., a woman greeted an old friend. He lives in Kiev, Ukraine.
“How is it?” she asked him. “Not good,” he said. His face wore the creases of sadness and fading hope.
Later that day, he was introduced to 2,000 attendees at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Global Forum. He was Josef Zissels, vice president of the World Jewish Congress who in the 1970s and 1980s was sentenced twice to prison in Russian gulags for “slander discrediting the Soviet government and social order.”
Can you imagine? Imprisoned for criticizing the government?
This is the end of May. In two weeks, western democracies will celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day — June 6, 1944, the Allies’ all-out assault to squash and obliterate the Nazis once and for all.
In modern times — the past decade — we know the tragedies that have disrupted the lives of 59,000 wounded and fallen heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But as awful as that number is, it pales in comparison to what this nation, our Allies and enemies endured in World War II. Sixty-million people died over six years — 10 million Germans and Japanese; 26 million Russians, 9 million of them Russian soldiers. At the height of the war, 16,112,566 Americans wore an Armed Forces uniform.Today the number is 1.3 million.
As the Allies prepared for the launch of D-Day, Operation Overlord, at this time in May 1944, conditions in Great Britain, the launchpad, were unimaginable compared to the way we live today.
In his acclaimed trilogy of World War II, writer Rick Atkinson opens his final book, “The Guns at Last Light,” with a wrenching description. He quotes an American visitor who said five years of war had left British cities as “bedraggled, unkempt and neglected as rotten teeth.”
“Hotels posted admonitions above their bathtubs: ‘The Eighth Army crossed the desert on a pint a day. Three inches only, please.’ … The country was steeped in heavy smells, of old smoke and cheap coal and fatigue. Wildflowers took root in bombed-out lots from Birmingham to Plymouth … Less bucolic were the millions of rats swarming through 3,000 miles of London sewers; exterminators scattered 60 tons of sausage poisoned with zinc phosphate, and stale bread dipped in barium carbonate …
“The monthly cheese allowance stood at two ounces per citizen. Many children had never seen a lemon; vitamin C came from ‘turnip water.’ The Ministry of Food promoted ‘austerity bread,’ with a whisper of sawdust, and ‘victory coffee,’ brewed from acorns … For those with strong palates, no ration limits applied to sheep’s head, or to eels caught in local reservoirs, or to roast cormorant, a stringy substitute for poultry.”
Amid this squalor and discomfort, the generals pressed on with their plans for the invasion of Normandy.
They created formulae to project casualties. Atkinson writes: “The 1st Infantry Division, the point of the spear on Omaha Beach, estimated that under ‘maximum’ conditions, casualties would reach 25%, of whom almost a third would be killed, captured or missing.
“The admiral commanding bombardment forces at Utah Beach told his captains that ‘we might expect to lose one-third to one-half of our ships.’ Projected U.S. combat drownings in June, exclusive of paratroopers, had been calculated a grimly precise 16,726.”
Forces of love, hate, prejudice
Before the D-Day invasion began, the gathering soldiers in the United Kingdom pondered their plight and their future. In the two years prior, 8 million American men were inducted into the Army and Navy; nearly half of the troops arriving for the European campaign in 1944 were teenagers.
Atkinson quotes two soldiers: a Vernon Scannell, who described “this drab khaki world” with its “boredom, cold, exhaustion, squalor, lack of privacy, monotony, ugliness and a constant teasing anxiety about the future.” The other soldier, a veteran of fighting in Italy, while waiting Operation Overlord, told his brother: “I have been greatly affected by the forces of love, hate, prejudice, death, life, destruction, reconstruction, treachery, bravery, comradeship, kindness and by the unseen powers of God.”
On the night before the D-Day invasion began, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower made his way to an airfield, driving on a narrow road clogged with soldiers and military trucks. He told his chauffeur: “It’s very hard really to look a soldier in the eye when you fear that you are sending him to his death.”
Nine thousand of the 156,000 Allied troops that headed for the beaches of Normandy never made it.
From D-Day until V-E Day, May 8, 1945, U.S. casualties totaled 587,000, 135,576 dead, almost half of the U.S. total worldwide, according to Atkinson.
To live free, not as slaves
In the epilogue of this emotional, personal and detailed telling of the European theater, a trilogy that took him 14 years to write, Atkinson closes with stories of how Americans took in the remains of more than 270,000 identifiable soldiers killed in action overseas.
“Among those waiting was Henry A. Wright, a widower who lived on a farm in southwestern Missouri, near Springfield. One by one his dead sons arrived at the local train station: Sgt. Frank H. Wright, killed on Christmas Eve 1944 in the Bulge; then Pvt. Harold B. Wright, who had died of his wounds in a German prison camp on Feb. 3, 1945; and finally Pvt. Elton E. Wright, killed in Germany on April 25, two weeks before the war ended.
“Gray and stooped, the elder Wright watched as the caskets were carried into the rustic bedroom where each boy had been born. Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side beneath an iron sky.”
Every combat death is like this — surreal, tragic, leaving loved ones scarred for life, sometimes too much to bear.
On this Memorial Day, remember all of those fallen heroes, who by their sacrifice, took the extraordinarily courageous stand: That they were unwilling to let us live as the conquered slaves of enemy forces.
BATTLE DEATHS OF AMERICA’S WARS
American Revolution ... 4,435
War of 1812 ... 2,260
Indian Wars ... 1,000
Mexican War ...1,733
Civil War ... 214,938
Spanish-American War ... 385
World War I ... 53,402
World War II ... 291,557
Korean War ... 33,739
Vietnam War ... 47,434
Desert Shield/Desert Storm ... 148
War on Terror* ... 5,336
Total Battle Deaths ... 656,367
Theater/non-Theater Deaths ... 540,511
Total Deaths ... 1,196,878
* Includes Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation New Dawn
Source: Department of Defense