Dakoda Pettigrew: American Insights — The Mighty Endeavor

On Wednesday, June 5, 1944, the president spoke to the American people through a common and comforting medium: the fireside chat. “Yesterday,” Franklin Roosevelt began, “Rome fell to American and Allied forces.” In a voice ringing with optimism, the president added, “The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go!”

With the center of Italian fascism taken, all eyes looked toward the next prize: the liberation of Europe from Hitler’s “master race.” Victory would not come easy. “No great effort like this can be a hundred percent perfect,” Roosevelt told the public, “but the batting average is very, very high.”

Democracy’s “machinery of war” was in the late innings; the next few days would determine whether the world would be ruled by the timeless and universal principles of human dignity and self-government or whether it would fall helplessly into the grasp of what Mussolini had boasted as the “all-embracing” fists of fascism.

The next day — Thursday evening, June 6 — Roosevelt again addressed the American people. This time, the occasion was solemn and less congratulatory. Hours earlier, Allied forces had begun the greatest invasion in military history; D-Day — the conquest of Nazi Europe, beginning with the liberation of France — was underway.

“When I spoke to you about the fall of Rome,” Roosevelt began, “I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and great operation.” Success had come, he said — so far at least. In the world’s “poignant hour,” Roosevelt asked Americans “to join with me in prayer.”

The opening line of the D-Day prayer comes to us — or at least it should — as easily as the words of the Declaration of Independence. “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

“With Thy blessing,” Roosevelt prayed, “we shall prevail.”

Hours earlier, the tailgates of countless amphibious assault vehicles dropped at Omaha Beach (and four other beaches), the place of the fiercest German resistance and where the Allied casualties were to be the heaviest. American soldiers, many of them seemingly more boy than man, met instantly with Nazi machine guns before they even hit the water. The beaches, as Winston Churchill had predicted days earlier, became “choked with the flower of American and British youth,” and the tides ran “red with their blood.”

One American soldier, Richard Fazzio, recalled, “I looked into the well of the [landing] boat…and I don’t think there was an atheist in there because every one of them was making the sign of the cross as we were going in.” Many of them would not survive the landings, let alone the struggle to secure the beachfront.

“We were scared to death,” one soldier remembered. Many jumped over the side rather than run straight into the gunfire.

“When the tailgate went down,” Guy C. Nicely recalled, “I went in over my head about three times,” losing most of his ammunition in the waves. Others were riddled with stray bullets and either died instantly or drowned in the currents.

Another soldier described what would happen if you survived the water. “I zigzagged [through the sand], slipping on wet stones and tripping and falling. There were guys getting hit all around me and going down and screaming and yelling for medics.” Assigned to film the landing, Walter Halloran “had to just step on, kick, push aside guys floating in the water. I just ran [forward].”

“Men’s souls,” Roosevelt had told America, “will be shaken with the violences of war.” Aboard a hospital ship, the journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote that surgical “operations were performed all night long.” Despite the suffering, the wounded “were a magnificent, enduring bunch of men.” Most “made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive.” But war was war. One German lay wounded behind an American, and the latter told a nurse, “I’d kill him if I could move.”

The Allied soldiers, Roosevelt had prayed, “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 but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

In London, King George VI battled through his crippling stammer and told listeners over the radio that the Allied “fight is against evil and for a world in which goodness and honor may be the foundation of the life of men in every land.” Like Roosevelt, the king prayed, “We shall ask not that God may do our will, but that we may be enabled to do the will of God.” The Allied cause, he added, was to “go forth and set the captives free.” And so they did, liberating France and then all of Europe.

In all, 4,400 Allied troops died on D-Day (2,500 Americans alone), and 5,000 were wounded. In the subsequent battle for Normandy, 73,000 died and another 153,000 were wounded. By the end of the Second World War, an estimated 3% of the global population had perished.

In his November 1, 1944, Thanksgiving Day proclamation, Roosevelt said, “For the preservation of our way of life from the threat of destruction; for the unity of spirit which has kept our Nation strong; for our abiding faith in freedom; and for the promise of enduring peace, we should lift up our hearts in thanksgiving.”

Roosevelt died on Thursday, April 12, 1945. It is the task of each generation to determine that “there will not be a third world war,” Roosevelt was to say in a speech on April 13, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today,” he was to conclude. “Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

Dakoda Pettigrew is a senior political science and history undergraduate student whose father went to school in Cassville. He lives in Tennessee and can be reached at pettigrewdakoda6@ gmail.com.

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