Howard Vander Beek, an executive officer on Landing Craft Control 60, held a prime vantage point as the first wave of American soldiers approached Utah Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. He sensed the action would be fierce as Allied forces charged into Adolf Hitler’s massive fortifications above and beyond the Normandy beaches. The outcome was far from certain.
To overwhelm the intricate defenses, the Allies unleashed the largest invasion force in world history — thousands of vessels and aircraft, bearing nearly 160,000 armed forces. Vander Beek found himself awash in mixed emotions.
No one word could depict “what surely must have been surging through each man’s mind and body,” the soldier would write in an account now in the collections of The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “Were such a word to be coined, it would include meanings embodied in such interrelated words as: bravery, weakness, trust, toughness, uncertainty, love, tenacity, determination, despair, fearlessness, fright, faith, assurance, doubt, hate, loyalty, distrust, resolution, seriousness, prayerfulness, bravado, and hope.”
American soldiers, airmen and sailors became actors in an epic battle when they took part in Operation Overlord, dramatically ramping up the struggle to free Europe from Nazi tyranny. Everything was at stake.
Roughly 2,500 Americans perished on D-Day alone, and thousands more came home with physical or psychological wounds, forever changed. The courage and sacrifice of these combatants, drawn from every sector of society, most of them very young, are honored today.
Their success ensured the Allies would prevail in World War II, and that freedom-loving democracies gained new strength in the postwar world under American leadership.
The Normandy D-Day story was a focal point of the museum that opened on June 6, 2000, and for good reason. Thousands of innovative landing craft used in this and many other D-Days of World War II were built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, giving the city a special status in the powerful Home Front narrative. My colleague Stephen Ambrose enlisted me in his quest to tell the story of the wartime contributions of Andrew Higgins and his massive, diverse workforce by building a museum to honor him and the men of D-Day.
Remembering D-Day at Normandy has remained a high priority for our museum, even as we have expanded to cover the entire American experience in World War II with world-class exhibits, collections and programs. D-Day will always be a major anniversary, but it is also an important time to pay tribute to all WWII veterans as this special generation is steadily passing from the scene.
The men who assaulted the Normandy beaches were immediately concerned with their weapons, their missions, with simply staying alive. But they also knew they were fighting to destroy fascism and to preserve freedom and democracy for America’s future. They gave everything they had.
After 75 years, their legacy is clear. Their voices are authentic, speaking to the best in all of us. They would want the memory of their sacrifice to give meaning to our lives as we face the challenges of our own time.
They answered the big questions for their generation, and they leave big questions for us: Could I have done what they did? What would I fight for? Die for?
As President Ronald Reagan noted during his famous 1984 speech atop Pointe du Hoc, overlooking the landing beaches, these brave Americans set out to remove a “terrible shadow” and reclaim a continent for liberty. “Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began.” We will always tell the story of those who fought at D-Day as we draw inspiration from their courage and actions.
Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller is president & CEO emeritus of The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.