Remembering D-Day, Frank Lautenberg, and the 'Greatest Generation'

At 89 years old, Senator Lautenberg was not only the most senior senator, he was also last surviving senator who served in World War II. Photo: AP

SAN JOSE, JUNE 6, 2013 –  The recent passing of Frank R. Lautenberg, a five-term United States senator from New Jersey, is significant for more than the vacant seat Governor Chris Christie must now deal with. At 89 years old, Senator Lautenberg was not only the most senior senator, he also happened to be the last surviving senator who served in World War II. He was one of many of those of the “greatest generation” who served their country in the time of war, and afterward returned home to continue to contribute and eventually offer themselves in public service through elected office.

With Lautenberg’s passing, it is significant that the last of those who sacrificed through their service in World War II, has passed through the halls of Congress and into the shadows of time.

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Frank Lautenberg was one of many who volunteered when the U.S. entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and one who went off to Europe to  fight against Hitler’s minions. It is fitting that Lautenberg was able to return home, and that he chose to serve his country once again in an elected office, serving the people of his home state of New Jersey.

Sadly, many of those men and boys who volunteered to fight in the military never made it back home. Many lost their lives on June 6, 1944. Today is the day that many around the world remember as D-Day, and many will never forget those who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy on that day. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that such men and boys gave their lives that representative government could survive, and that others like them could return to a haven for those who love freedom.    

D-Day began in the wee morning hours of June 6th in 1944, and commenced the largest amphibious military invasion in world history. This all out invasion against the entrenched Nazi military fortifications spread across 50 miles of French coastline at Normandy, was definitely dangerous and deadly, it was an act of desperation, but it was also an act of daring. D-Day proved to be a pivotal moment in the fighting in Europe during World War II. 

This most crucial assault, more formally known as “Operation Overlord, was the initial day of the Allied invasion against the German divisions.  It was not just intended to liberate portions of occupied France, it also represented the initial attack of a more massive and prolonged onslaught against German forces that served to open up a western front in Europe designed to penetrate to the heart of Germany and break the Nazi war machine.

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D-Day, or the initial beach assault phase code-named “Operation Neptune,” was not only comprised of the amphibious assault of five Normandy beaches, it also included a massive naval bombardment as well as an airborne assault involving 10,000 Allied aircraft striking at the German defenses, and the dropping thousands of paratroopers behind enemy lines shortly after midnight preceding the dawn coastal landings. “Neptune” actually lasted through the end of June. According to the D-day museum:

“…Operation Neptune began on D-Day (June 6th 1944) and ended on 30 June 1944. By this time, the Allies had established a firm foothold in Normandy. Operation Overlord also began    on D-Day, and continued until Allied forces crossed the River Seine on 19 August 1944.”

The initial efforts to open this new front against the German stranglehold on most of Europe succeeded; however, it came at great cost.  By the end of the first day, more than 10,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded. But on that day, the Allies were able to secure a foothold in French sand. Though the cost for the beachhead was high, taking the beaches enabled over 100,000 soldiers to begin their march across France to take down Adolf Hitler. Operation Neptune managed to crack the powerful Nazi grip on occupied France. 

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces that unleashed this massive, cross-channel, frontal invasion of the German positions in Northern France. He had been a proponent of such a direct assault as early as 1942, but faced opposition from the British who feared a re-run of the devastating trench warfare of World War I. Eisenhower’s ideas were finally accepted by the Allied command on January 15, 1944. When he gave the orders to commence the attack, he revealed genuine hope for a victorious outcome:   

“You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely… The free men of the world are marching together to victory. 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.”                                                                                          

This complicated, yet meticulously planned, initial thrust of Operation Overlord proved successful, and by the end of June, 1944, Allied troops had established complete control     of Normandy beaches. Then, the soldiers managed to fight their way across the River Seine by August 19, 1944, at which time Operation Overlord essentially ended by accomplishing the objective of driving deep into Nazi controlled France before the end of the summer.

This Allied thrust was essentially the beginning of the end of the German military machine that would collapse in less than a year. This complex and deadly invasion of Normandy was a final component of a military strategy that fundamentally pressed in like a vise upon the  Germans; with the Soviet Red Army closing in from the Eastern Front, and the British and American forces pushing up into the underbelly of Germany through Italy. The attack on Normandy exposed the overextended German military to further Allied assault from a Western Front.

The combined Allied effort on D-Day proved to be a decisive turning point in the war          in Europe. By 1943, Hitler had taken over every nation in Europe except Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Without the cooperation of all the Allies on        D-Day, the outcome of the war in Europe may have been much different. One can imagine what the horrendous reality of that world could have been. Perhaps the world would have become much worse. It is good to reflect upon the value of D-Day and those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom. The better image to call upon could be one shared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he called upon Americans to join with him in prayer for ultimate success on June 6, 1944. In that prayer, Roosevelt defended the likes of the “greatest generation” before God:

“Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, …our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity…

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith…

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home…”

Although D-Day belongs to the cobwebs of history and although the old soldiers are fading into the shadows, it is wise to remember this Day and the deeds of that generation.  The brave men and boys who hit the beaches of Normandy, and men like Frank Lautenberg, who served in the Army Signal Corps, made great sacrifices, not only on June 6th, but also throughout the war, and even after the war. Especially, their awesome sacrifice during the most devastating war in human history, made a significant difference in the history of the world. They truly deserve to be remembered.  

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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