The mission and the moment

Ninety-nine-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran Kenneth Gavin was 24 years old when he co-piloted a C-47 with a glider in tow over the skies of Normandy on D-Day. Now, 75 years later, he reflects on that day. (Spenser R. Hasak)

By sea and by air, the invasion of France galvanized the world’s attention 75 years ago and made D-Day a household expression defining the arrival, in simplest terms, of the day, hour and minute for decisive action.

The action on the French beaches and in the countryside and small towns was a desperate, close-run affair that succeeded through a combination of planning, brilliant subterfuge and the benefit of poor decisions, or no decisions, on the part of German commanders tasked with defending Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall against invaders.

Looming large in history in terms of its scale and significance, D-Day in reality was a collection of do-or-die minutes in which participants, seemingly small in their importance or large, made decisions that changed the course of history.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander and later president, weighed weather reports, listened to advice from subordinates, and calculated risks before becoming the lone decision-maker charged with launching the invasion.

The landing craft-borne infantry who waded out of English Channel swells and onto French beaches had little time to decide if they should advance or retreat. With comrades dying around them, the invaders pressed forward to overwhelm deadly German resistance.

Glider tow plane co-pilot Kenneth Gavin’s moment came before he climbed into the cockpit of his C-47. A superior officer decided to switch the plane’s place in a massed formation of aircraft towing glider planes sent across the English Channel.

The plane assigned to Gavin’s previous spot in the formation was shot down before his eyes.

D-Day teeters 75 years later on history’s edge. The tipping point will come when the last witness to that historic day dies and consigns D-Day’s moments, hours and the days that followed it into the history books and recorded accounts.

When that happens, the responsibility will fall squarely on us to remember D-Day for its acts of courage and for its ultimate sacrifices.

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