Two men forever bound by one “Longest Day” : D -Day June 6,1944

June 5, 2016

dday_landingSword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha. Five code words for beaches far away in a time fast becoming long ago. For many Americans their meaning no more than a couple of cities, a state, a precious metal and a medieval weapon.

Yet to those of us who still believe that for a future to have meaning the past must be remembered, they are five words that hearken back to one of the most significant dates in human history, June 6th, 1944.

A day that dawned with the largest invasion fleet ever assembled approaching the beaches of Normandy and over 4,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers breathing in the last few precious breaths of their lives. Their brothers in arms in the British 6th and the American 82 and 101st Airborne divisions having dropped behind enemy lines hours earlier already in the fight of their lives.

We know more about the courage and sacrifice on that day than perhaps any other. And much of it we owe to two men who were never there.

One was born June 5, 1920 in Dublin, Ireland, was in London during the Blitz, flew along with units of the Eight and Night U.S. Army Air Corps on bombing raids into Europe, and ended the war embedded with none other than Patton’s Third Army. In 1951 he would become a naturalized United States citizen and unfortunately leave this world on December 9, 1974 at the all too young age of 54.

The other came into this world January 10, 1936 in Lovington, Illinois and had planned to follow the path of his physician father until William Hesseltine’s “Representative Americans” college history class sparked within the young man a fire for history that would not be extinguished until is death in 2002.

The former is known to us as Cornelius Ryan, the latter Stephen Ambrose. Two men, born oceans apart yet forever bound by a single day, so many days ago.

The inspiration for Ryan was a 1949 trip to Normandy when he realized the story was incomplete and set about to complete it. Utilizing thousands of accounts from survivors on both sides, his work culminated ten years later in the definitive: The Longest Day, 6 June 1944 D-Day published in 1959.

For Abmrose it would be a 1988 visit to a reunion of Easy Company veterans that would inspire him to bring to a new generation the sacrifice of that known as “the greatest”. Out of the first hand accounts of Easy Company came Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in 1992 following up with D-Day in 1994 that built upon additional oral histories of the on site combatants.

Darryl F. Zanuck would immortalize The Longest Day in the 1962 20th Century Fox epic, and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would turn to HBO Films to bring the story to life from the airborne infantry perspective in the 2001 Band of Brothers series.

While we must never forget the blood and sacrifice of that day, we should also remember the contributions of Ryan and Ambrose and their kind that bring meaning to it all. Because without the historian willing to research it, absorb it, and write it, the entire history of the human race would still be but one blank page.

In a footnote to that page, if not for a storm in the channel the night before, Ryan would have shared his birthday with his Longest Day. For it was June 5th, not June 6th that was the original invasion date. Such are the quirks that fill in the blanks of those pages we call history.

PUBLISHER’s NOTE:  A version of this column appears in the Sunday, June 5, 2016 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

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