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This Week in History: A Spirit of Backbones, Not Wishbones


Eighty years ago today, young men stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day and freed Europe from the grip of tyranny and madness. May their sacrifices in the defense of faith and liberty never be forgotten.

For more than three years, the Bedford Boys trained for war. They would be the point of the spear, as it were, among the first wave of tens of thousands of young men who would set out across the English Channel and finally rescue Europe from the Nazis.

As recited in The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, by Alan Kershaw,their journey began in April 1941, when the tiny, rural town of Bedford, Virginia, showered 31 of its sons with a grand farewell — a week of festivities topped off by parades and proud speeches. Then they boarded the transport trains leaving Liberty Station to base destinations along the east coast.    

After 18 months of basic training, Central Virginia’s finest, along with 20,000 other troops, boarded the luxury oceanliner Queen Mary and headed to England on a month-long zigzag voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid German submarines and U-boats.

Daily  and intense training continued in England. The Americans knew the inevitable day would arrive when the conditioning, marksmanship, and other skills being honed would pay off, but little can be done to mentally prepare for realities yet unknown.

Projectiles would whiz by. Shrapnel would rip flesh. Friends would fall. Flag-draped coffins containing the remains of American soldiers would be placed on ships to return to the U.S.

Freedom, yet to be experienced by future generations, was the reason a soldier stood with backbone straight, willing to suffer and pay the ultimate price.

The strategy as to when and where America’s offensive engagement would take place was clandestine. Those preparing for D-Day on June 6, 1944, knew only the why, not the how.

A battle plan, a mode of transport, and a meticulous level of surprise would be needed for any possible successful maneuver of such magnitude.

The greatest naval assault in history also needed vessels. The full capabilities of the industrial complex in America were retrofitted, assisting the Allies for eventual victory in Europe. The invasion and the conditions of the invasion, along with the when and the where, were continual stress points among the Allies.

The coastline of Europe included seaports and potential staging areas on the North Sea, the  English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. Hitler was aware of the preparations for a European invasion, so convinced of it, in fact, that he constructed the 2,000-mile-long Atlantic Wall from the northern tip of Norway to the border of France and Spain. Within the barrier were 15,000 concrete emplacements holding 300,000 troops. The Atlantic Wall contained 1.2 million tons of steel and 17 million cubic meters of concrete (equivalent to 11,000 Yankee stadiums). Those defenses also included five million mines situated just beyond the shoreline.

Ultimately, the Allies chose the beaches near Normandy because of their close proximity to air cover and their distance away from the heavily fortified Atlantic Wall construction.  At the same time, though, other areas along the shorelines were disguised using decoys that conjured military activity. 

Winston Churchill stated, “In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Operation Bodyguard and its several subsets of operations to distort the location and timing of what was really being planned kept Germany from knowing anything about the impending invasion. The distractions included prompting Hitler to believe that either Norway or Pas de Calais, the shortest distance across the channel, were possible invasion sites. Other deceptive commodities included inflatable tanks, artificial boats, dummy landing strips, actors, aluminum foil, double agents, and fake radio communications.

British “Ruperts,” also known as “Oscars” by the Americans, were “paradummies,” another part of the deception code named Operation Titanic.  Dolls that looked like paratroopers were dropped on June 5,1944, successfully disorienting the enemy as to the location of the invasion. Some were mounted with speakers broadcasting gunfire, while others contained explosives.

A short window of reasonable weather determined the moment of official invasion after a couple of cancellations.  On June 6, 1944, at 1 a.m. Operation Overlord began. Thirteen thousand paratroopers jumped out of the more than 900 transport planes into enemy territory to seal off bridges that could be used for reinforcing the Nazi soldiers manning the Atlantic Wall near Normandy Beach. Five hundred hang gliders carried equipment, supplies, and 4,000 men.

D-Day was the largest amphibious invasion ever attempted.  Within one day, nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 7,000 naval vessels protected by 12,000 aircraft. More than 4,000 allied servicemen made the ultimate sacrifice. By the end of June, the area surrounding Normandy contained 850,000 troops, 570,000 tons of supplies, and nearly 150,000 vehicles.

Because the Germans had been largely deceived, the beach was secured and the Atlantic Wall breached in just one day.  But the casualties were enormous.  At daybreak that morning, men from Company A, 29th Division, felt the bullets ricocheting off the landing craft as they headed toward Omaha Beach. Within minutes, 19 of the 31 Bedford Boys were killed. Three-plus years of training and gone in 15 minutes — drowned or killed. Some were never found.

Those shell-shocked,) soldiers who actually lived through the ravages of D-Day and other battles returned with physically recognizable and/or mentally undetectable wounds. For the remainder of their lives, they longed for moments when the mental assault of warfare’s mayhem subsided, when the smell of diesel fuel did not aggravate a focused readiness position, or a popping sound did not provoke a duck-and-cover response. The intensity of war, decades in the past, seldom offered a respite of peace and tranquility.

My uncle, Glenwood Overstreet, was one of the Bedford Boys who survived and spent the rest of his life trying to live with PTSD.  He was never able to come to terms with the fact that he had made it home while so many others had made the ultimate sacrifice. He had classic survivor’s guilt. He would remember, get angry, tear up, and ask why he had lived while his fellow troops did not.

Europe was freed, the Nazis defeated eleven months later, and the horrors of the Holocaust discovered. The establishment of the nation of Israel would soon follow. And America solidified its reputation as a shining beacon of hope and a people who would sacrifice not just for their own freedoms but for the freedoms of others. It was America’s finest moment.

D-Day was a great strategic victory, but it was also a miracle granted by God, in large part because the nation and all involved pleaded with God to give them the victory.

In a letter to his troops the night before the invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote: “And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God on this great and noble undertaking.”

Back home in America, millions of Americans were in church on the morning of June 6, 1944, and the New York Daily News ran “The Lord’s Prayer” on its front page. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prayed for the troops during a national broadcast as Operation Overlord was in full swing and called on the American people to continue to pray without ceasing, stating,

“Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.”

Today marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and yet so few of the youngest generations know about it or appreciate the sacrifices of the young men who gave all so future Americans could know what’s it like to live in freedom.

In the end, more than 400,000 Americans fighting in both the European and Pacific theaters made the ultimate sacrifice. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded and nearly all suffered the trauma of seeing war and seeing friends and innocents die.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes quite often. The muted voice of the German church at the rise of Hitler is eerily similar to the silence from American pulpits today regarding the Bible’s answers to the American dilemma and the spiritual malaise in which we currently find ourselves.

Unfortunately, too many Christians today have wishbones — “wishing” that someone with a backbone would change things. 

The American Church must once again find its backbone, or we will again grapple with the possibility of losing our freedoms.

In 1911, William P. Merrill penned the great hymn “Rise Up O Men of God.” Its words speak across the years and they are more relevant to us than ever for it memorializes the One who laid down His life so that we could be truly free.

May these words, “Bring in the day of brotherhood and end the night of wrong” because ‘The church for you doth wait,” become our marching orders. It is the right thing to do.

America’s only hope for survival are backbones, and not wishbones, in its pastors and Christians, and that means fully embracing and wielding, without apology, the full armor of God: truth, righteousness, faith, peace, salvation, and the Word of God. May we too be up to the great task set before us.

Photos courtesy of the personal collection of the author.

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