Elmo Cook knew nothing about it.
He’d heard the sirens in the middle of the night alerting all of Abilene that something had happened, but when he tried to turn on the radio, he found that his power was out. And when he left for work in the morning, the paperboy had not yet made his rounds.
As a result, Cook was one of the last people in town to hear about D-Day.
The anecdote is from the Abilene Reporter-News for June 7th, 1944, and it offers a visceral illustration of how the nation has changed in the now-75 years since American and other Allied forces stormed beaches in the Normandy region of France. Indeed, from the vantage point of 2019, the idea that one might not know that a fleet of more than 6,000 vessels had ferried more than 150,000 men to an enemy shore where they charged into machine gun fire sounds, to put it mildly, ridiculous.
In 2019, we would know. The attack would be live streamed. French civilians hiding in their cellars would tweet eyewitness accounts. CNN would run breaking news graphics and stand military consultants atop holographic maps to give the play-by-play. Because these days, the world is wired and we are all better connected — if by “connected,” one means superior communications technology.
But connectedness is about more than mobile phones and social media. It is also about the investment each one makes in a common us, larger than the challenges and troubles of any single life. Seventy-five years ago, that investment, that connectedness, made people save scrap metal and bacon grease, grow their own food, ration gas, buy war bonds and go without.
And then on D-Day, it made companies take out newspaper ads exhorting people to go to their churches or synagogues to pray for the men in harm’s way, something a modern retailer would be unlikely to do. “Thoughts and prayers,” after all, has become a cliché and besides, what business wants to marginalize Muslims or atheists? Yet, there is something in those old ads, in the implicit assumption that the same burdens, hopes and faith were borne by all, that is undeniably affecting.
Tom Brokaw famously dubbed the Americans who fought World War II “The Greatest Generation.” Whether you buy that or not, they were without question a generation that courageously faced the nation’s greatest existential threat since the Civil War. And like the Civil War generation, this one was forced to confront the realization that America’s survival was not preordained, that everything they loved could go away.
History demanded of them the answer to a pointed question: what would you give to save your world? Estimates vary, but by one authoritative count, 2,501 Americans gave their lives on D-Day alone.
Many of them rest beneath white marble headstones at Le Cimetire Amricain — the American Cemetery — which sits atop a bluff overlooking one of the windswept beaches where these men waded ashore. Back at home, their families huddled around radios or snatched up newspapers, hungry for news.
They were not a perfect generation, the tendency to romanticize them notwithstanding. But they knew, better than their children, better than their children’s children, how to be a country — what it took, what it meant, and why it mattered. They pulled together and believed in something more important to them than their own lives. And so, they were bound to one another, connected to one another in ways unachievable by social media. It is something you and I might find difficult to imagine.
But we owe it to our country to try.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Email him at lpittsmiamiherald.com.