What D-Day Means Today

On June 6th, 1944, 75 years ago today, allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe.  You will see many tributes today heralding this feat. I am inspired to think of the people involved, and inevitably of my own grandfather, Alton Flatten. Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” in reference to Americans of this generation, in particular.  The landings in Normandy are just one of many feats accomplished by this generation.  While we can always point to more …to more things we wish were addressed, to inequities that still exist…I think that saving the world from the tyranny of a madman pretty much ranks right up there with anything else of which I could think. Frankly, Mr. Brokaw’s choice of terms is fitting.

It Was Different Then:

D-Day will always be one of those landmark historical moments that people celebrate and it remains emblematic of that for which we stand. It was about defending liberty, and our countries. The lines were clearly drawn and there was a moral imperative to our cause. The country rallied around the cause and everyone pulled together to help the war effort. Whether you were American, Canadian, British, French, Norwegian, or Polish, this was a fight about defending a way of life, liberty and freedom, and in some cases, even our very existence.  We haven’t seen such clarity of purpose since. But on this day back in 1944, in a rare and amazing display of unity and citizenship, the American experiment succeeded on a glorious scale. Over the next year, citizen-soldiers, led by people both common and great, found ways to overcome the most imperious threat to democracy the world had yet seen. 

For me, the fact that this feat was accomplished by ordinary men and women, not only storming beaches from their Higgins boats but also working long hours at factories, or tending Victory Gardens is the perfect illustration of why they are indeed The Greatest Generation.  I wish I could positively say we will see their like again.  But I am ever thankful to have had them at the exact time we needed them.   

D-Day and the Numbers:

There were 5 separate landings along 60 miles of Normandy coast.  The beaches were code named: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Americans landed 73,000 troops (23,400 airborne) at Omaha and Utah beaches.   The British landed 61,715 troops (including airborne) at Gold and Sword beaches.  Canada landed 21,400 troops at Juno beach.  There were 6,939 Naval vessels involved – comprised of 1213 combat ships, 4126 landing craft, 726 support ships, and 864 merchant vessels.  In short…the allies threw a beach party and everyone showed up.

On some beaches there was little to no opposition.  This was not the case at Omaha beach.  There, the fighting was vicious and dire.  The exact number of casualties is not known.  Estimates are approximately 10,000 allied soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in action.  6,603 Americans, 2,700 British and 946 Canadians.

Alton Flatten: Soldier

My grandfather, Alton Flatten, was a Corporal in Company M, 5th Regiment, 71st Infantry Division of Patton’s 3rd Army.  He was inducted on April 29 of 1942.  After basic training he went to Wright Field in Wilmington, Ohio where he took part in testing gliders for their suitability in landing troops behind enemy lines.  History underscores how important that testing was. After this testing concluded he was shipped to Camp Maxey in Texas where he stayed until he was deployed overseas. 

glider field
Alton Flatten at Wright Field in Wilmington, OH

Grandpa did not land on D-Day. In fact, his unit landed at Le Havre on March 23rd of 1945 – 9 months after D-Day.  Regardless, he spent 9 months and 16 days in combat.  His MOS was a 931 Truck Driver, Heavy and a 745 Rifleman.  He drove deuce and a half trucks, was an ammunition bearer for a water cooled 30 caliber machine gun team, and your garden variety rifleman.

Switzerland 1
Nick Spencer and Alton Flatten in Switzerland

His unit, the 71st Infantry Division, was involved in some very nasty affairs which included surrounding and eliminating the 6th Mountain SS Division Nord, making several amphibious river crossings under fire against heavy opposition, and liberating Gunskirchen Lager at Lambech, Austria.  It was a sub-camp of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. There were 18,000 persons in this concentration camp, and Company M was first on the scene, along with Company K. He never spoke of this event. 

The boys
Some of the boys from company M: Larson, Mickey, Lathrop and Windholm

The War Diary:

Alton kept a war diary, which I am lucky to have.  His many months stateside are well documented, and include many pictures.  Once in the European Theatre of Operations, his notes and entries tail off a bit – and then stop altogether once his unit entered combat.  I can understand that there wasn’t time for writing in all of that. You can see the Service Record – Transfers page of his war diary that abruptly stops at Mainz, Germany.   

service record
You can see through various pen types, Grandpa carefully notes where and when he was transferred. However, once he hits France, all bets are off.

Later, in a short narrative section, he summarizes his time in combat.  I think he felt he had to make some mention of it, and so after it was all over he sat down to give a few impressions.  I will let his own words do the talking here. 

diary page 1
Summary of combat, 1
Diary page 2
Summary of combat, part 2

Grandpa never spoke of the war that I recall.  My father says that he only told a couple stories over the years.  Some grim, and some humorous.  But it was clear from the official record that what he had seen must have been intensely impactful.  Dad remarks that after the war grandpa always ran in a crouch…it was simply ingrained.   

He arrived back in the US on Dec 22, 1945 and was discharged on December 27th, 1945. Back to Minnesota he would go and eventually end up showing me and my brother gigantic pumpkins, giving us rides on his Ford farm tractor and giving me my first train set. I still have that train set. (For all you train nerds out there, it’s an Athearn set with an EMD GP diesel in Santa Fe livery.) 

grandpa in pumpkin patch
Me, Alton, my brother Teig on his farm outside of Watertown, MN.

The Presidents Talk:

I listened to the speeches today from both President Macron of France and President Trump. I was struck by how often President Trump referred to the allied soldiers fighting against “the Nazis”.  His use of this political/ideological distinction was interesting.  Could his goal (or that of his speech writer) have been to draw a distinction between ordinary Germans and those who embraced the hateful ideologies of National Socialism?  The Germans I have known who were alive during WW2 paint a picture of a Germany where control was absolute and people didn’t dare express a counter opinion, out of fear for their personal safety. Their own personal values, in the cases of which I know, ran contrary to established Nazi policy.

Making a Distinction?

I wondered what the veterans who fought in that campaign thought of the President making that distinction? Did THEY make a distinction between Nazis and Germans?  I wonder if my own grandfather did? I know that he fought against both the SS and Wehrmacht.  One being hard-line fanatical elite having sworn a personal oath to Hitler, and the other being the regular army.  He also liberated a concentration camp.  So he saw first-hand the cruelty of Nazi policy.

While my grandfather is no longer with us, and rarely talked of the war when he was, I can imagine that making such distinctions in the midst of a world war are a bit of luxury.  That sounds cold to say …even to see in print.  But I can’t imagine the individual soldier could do anything other than react to each instance that he encountered and make a judgement call based on their own personal principles. As his war diary testifies, they had little time for even sleeping, much less contemplating such things. Living with that is just one of the many terrible consequences of war, and part of the price that generation paid for our liberty. 

wehrmacht soldier
This photo appears in the war diary and features a wehrmacht soldier from whom binoculars were confiscated.

A Curious Photo:

In grandpa’s war diary there is included a curious photo of some Wehrmacht soldiers that he had helped to capture.  He notes, in the margins of his diary, that he has the field glasses hanging on the front soldier. Today, I have those same field glasses.  What is curious about this little story is that the field glasses did not originally belong to the Wehrmacht soldier either.  They are Russian field glasses!  So evidently this soldier had been on the Eastern front and subsequently been transferred to the Western front, bringing his captured field glasses with him. Eventually being taken by my grandfather and now in my possession.  If Russia wants their binoculars back, they can’t have them. 

the field glasses
The very same field glasses
soviet binocs
Except …they originally belonged to a Soviet soldier!

My 2 Cents: 

While today is marked with celebrations honoring those who led the way into Normandy, I can’t help but think of stories like the one that is represented in my own family.  The cost of D-Day was tremendous.  But the cost of that war was spread around to everyone …to all soldiers, families and allies. No, this country is not perfect, but many are the privileges and liberties we enjoy today because they answered the call to arms.  Never have I had to board a boat to anywhere just to preserve our way of life – to prevent a foreign power from attacking our shores. We are the lucky descendants of the greatest generation.  Remember to say “Thank you.”

Truman letter
The greatest generation

2 Responses

  • Kathy

    Very interesting post E, thank you for sharing. You’re lucky to have those items. I don’t know if our uncles Jack, Frank, and George shared any of their stories from their service during the war, perhaps they did, but we are grateful for all their efforts.

    • Thanks Kathy! I never heard much about Jack, Frank or George either, but I’m sure everyone, whether they served or not, has many interesting stories from that time period! 🙂


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