D-Day is the most personal of anniversaries. Young people don’t remember it, but chances are they know someone who does. Some of us know of someone who was directly involved or affected.
Germany’s defeat was a personal victory for millions of Europeans, but the European political maps didn’t change overnight. Germany retained control over some areas — including all of Denmark, which it had invaded in 1940. Denmark still celebrates the anniversary of May 5, 1945 — the day angry Danes who’d resisted mightily against the Nazis finally got Germany the hell out of their country.
My grandfather spent his entire life in Denmark and died recently at 91. He was in his early 20s on June 6, 1944, and Denmark still was under German control after an invasion four years earlier. For Danes — and Germans, for that matter — the Nazis’ defeat at Normandy was a signal that life was about to change dramatically. And it did.
I didn’t just hear about World War II history during my yearly visits to Denmark as a youth; I saw it. As we drove south on the Danish mainland, my grandfather would point out historic locations. He’d talk about riding bicycles with a friend in Germany in the weeks before the invasion of Denmark. We’d visit sunken bunkers on Denmark’s west coast that now are coated with graffiti — some expressing anti-Nazi messages and some featuring the universal circular “peace” sign. And he’d unwittingly teach me powerful lessons about the human condition.
As a half-Dane, I’m especially inclined to hate Nazis. They didn’t just commit atrocities against people; they committed atrocities against “my” people. That said, my grandfather told me something you’ll never see in a Hollywood movie.
German soldiers occupied numerous homes in Denmark, needing a place to sleep during occupation. When one thinks of a Nazi, he or she thinks of a square-jawed, evil-eyed assassin. And some were.
But many of the very young soldiers who slept in the loft above my grandfather’s home apparently weren’t. He told me they kept him awake sometimes, but not because they were drinking and cavorting.
It’s because they were crying. These young men despised what they were being told to do and lacked any perspective on why they were told to do it. Some Germans who fought in the war had no idea what the “final solution” was and really believed they were doing the right thing. My grandfather, who had every reason to feel they were doing the wrong thing, recognized this.
I’ve come to realize that D-Day wasn’t the biggest victory in a fight against Germany. It was the knockout punch against the Nazis, against evil. As such, it’s an awfully powerful anniversary for me. It is for all of us.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
The Nevada Appeal is at its best when staffers collaborate, as I mentioned in last week’s column. After I read correspondent Sally Roberts’ compelling Thursday feature about Silver Springs resident Hale Bennett’s personal experiences on D-Day, I rushed upstairs to tell Swift design chief Keith Sheffield that we had something special.
I told him I’d turn the story in early and write a headline that lent itself to “feature” play, and he responded by finding a photo of the type of plane Bennett flew and building our front page around it. Keith loves creative design, and the Appeal often benefits immensely from that.
We certainly did Thursday, and Hale was an unwitting participant in our collaboration. At 93, he said things both funny — admitting that “It was pretty conceivable I was thinking about girls” when it came time to fly on D-Day — and powerful. I’ll end this column with his words, not mine.
“We pulverized that entire transport system in France. We were accurate putting bombs in the end of rail tunnels. So we took out railroad bridges, took out all the tunnels, started taking out (Nazi) housing. We were doing everything we could to prevent the advance of the German army.”
Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.