What happened in France 70 years ago truly was a triumph of the will

Most of the combatants are dead now, and for youngsters D-Day, if they know about it at all, is right up there with the Battle of Bull Run.

Few realize that democracy and liberty hung by a thread as British, New Zealand, U.S. and Canadian troops struggled to gain a foothold in France.

That was 70 years ago Friday, and the main reminders are some abandoned gun emplacement on the French coast and row upon row of military graves.

Even someone who lied about age to enter the military would have to be about 86 or 87 today. Few such individuals will be at the ceremonies in Normandy Friday where Barack Obama will represent the United States.

These were members of what Tom Brokaw called the greatest generation in his 1998 book. They suffered through the Depression and then were thrust into a war  they hardly could understand. Brokaw was talking about Americans, but the Canadians and British of that time share the designation.

More than 4,400 allied troops died that day. And that was just the start of a grim operation to drive the Germans and their allies from France. Also participating, of course, were troops from the captured countries: The free French, Polish, Greeks, Norwegians, Czechs, Dutch and Belgians.

Many a family received unwanted telegrams that week, and every family with a solder, sailor or Marine on duty expected one.

Jumping into the surf from a landing craft in the face of machine gun fire is not something that comes natural to any human. The U.S. Army high command knew that, and efforts began just as the war started in 1941 to give American troops a reason. That reason was to protect the home, family and the American way of life.

Even as the British and French fought the Germans, many Americans wanted to stay out of the European war. The memories of Word War I still were strong. In fact, there was strong sentiment in favor of the German National Socialist regime headed by Adolf Hitler. Those seeking a similar government in the U.S. filled Madison Square Garden once for a gigantic rally.

Gen. George Marshall, the U.S. military chief of staff, knew where to look. He called on Hollywood and the man who sent Mr. Smith to Washington in 1939, Frank Capra.

The result was a seven-part propaganda series that was mandatory

Bird's-eye view of landing craft, barrage balloons and allied troops landing in Normandy on D-Day.

Bird’s-eye view of landing craft, barrage balloons and allied troops landing in Normandy on D-Day.

for all U.S. troops. Faced with a minimal budget, Capra said he rejected the military’s idea for films about big ships, many planes and U.S. strength.

Instead, he turned the Axis propagandists back on themselves. Capra said he felt fear as he watched reel after reel of German and Japanese movie clips and news shorts. A few minutes of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will’ about the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg would chill any American.

These guys were for real, Capra said, and he figured his job was to make the average soldier aware of that.

The resulting “Why We Fight” series is a classic. Disney studio participated, too.

Most of the Americans on the 5,300 ships and 11,000 planes that participated in the D-Day invasion had seen the series. Eventually the bulk of the U.S. public did, too.

Much of what Americans know now about the Normandy invasion comes from “The Longest Day,” the 1962 Oscar-winning movie that depicted action on both the Allied and German sides.

Like many soldiers, those who endured the horrors of the landing and subsequent hedgerow-by-hedgerow fighting were reluctant to talk. And now most belong to history

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