D-Day: Our heavy losses were small compared to other nations’ sufferings

U.S. troops help their injured comrades at Normandy during the D-Day invasion. Credit: U.S. Army

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day —the day of the allied landings in Normandy, which began the last stage of the European phase of World War II.

In the Pacific states and Western time zones, D-Day seemed a bit less important than it did to the rest of the country. The war with Japan was closer to us and a majority of local men and women in the military were in the Pacific theater of operations. But people nonetheless huddled by their radios to hear minute-by-minute D-Day reports, in particular from London-based Edward R. Murrow, a Washington State grad whose family lived just south of Bellingham. The Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, had served just before the war as a battalion commander at Fort Lewis.

Not quite 10 years old at D-Day, I maintained and updated on our dining-room table war maps of Europe and the Pacific. My Washington School classmates in Bellingham filled books with paste-in War Savings Stamps, which we bought with saved nickels and dimes. You could gain entry to Saturday movie matinees by contributing a metal toy, to be recycled for the war effort, in lieu of the 9-cent admission. Parents, brothers, sisters and cousins not serving in the war almost universally were engaged in defense or volunteer work related to the war. Blackouts took place at night, with all exterior lights turned off and shades drawn on every home's windows. Word spread quickly of neighborhood families suffering a loss. A Gold Star flag in a window meant that a family member had been killed in the war. A Blue Star flag indicated that a family member was serving.

Those with memory of World War II recall it as a time when the nation as a whole mobilized behind a common goal and in which some made enormous personal sacrifices. But, truth be told, our own losses and sacrifices were comparatively small compared to those elsewhere. More on this below.

Our American war narrative pretty much goes like this: Germany and Japan overrun neighboring countries in Europe and Asia. The early tide favors them. The U.S., as in World War I, rides to the rescue and uses its industrial might and military forces to turn the tide against the bad guys. Hitler commits suicide and death-camp inmates are freed. Nuclear bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Good guys win.

Much of the narrative is correct. But much, also, is oversimplified and misleading.

The western-front fighting in Europe on and after D-Day was bloody. The opposing German Army was the most skilled and professional of all forces in World War II. But, by mid-1944, it already had been badly weakened by fighting on the Russian front. Its manpower, weapons and matériel were depleted. The invading forces had overwhelming air superiority. In fact, the outcome of the European war had been decided long before U.S. entry into the war or the Normandy invasion. 

The German general staff, and Adolf Hitler's key economic advisers, had told him as early as November 1941 that the war was not winnable militarily — even without an anticipated U.S. intervention — because Germany's manpower reserves, food and energy resources, and production capabilities were not sufficient to pursue a protracted war. The Russian campaign, begun in June, had not ended in a blitzkrieg victory, as planned, and could not be sustained with available resources.

Hitler told his generals that they'd just have to keep fighting until he got a diplomatic settlement to the war. France and neighboring European countries already had been conquered. He presumed that Great Britain would make a deal, seeing the Soviets as a greater threat to European security. He did not anticipate U.S. entry into the war until sometime in 1942, after which it would take a long time for American power to be directly felt. Many senior British officials wanted to make a deal. But, as it turned out, Prime Minister Winston Churchill would not hear of it.

Japan's Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war sooner than Hitler expected. (Even then, the U.S. did not declare war on Germany; Hitler, instead, declared war on the United States). The attack was provoked by a U.S. embargo on oil and other resources, without which Japan, an island nation lacking its own resources, could not function. But just as the European war was decided by Hitler's foolish mid-1941 Russian invasion, the Asian and Pacific war was decided by Japan's fatal overreach in China between 1937 and 1941. In both cases the aggressors, Germany and Japan, found themselves unable to simultaneously supply their forces, fight continuing actions, and occupy the huge countries they presumed to conquer. (Some 185,000 Japanese died in China before the Pearl Harbor attack; 1 million Japanese troops were still there and unavailable to fight in the Pacific war, when the war ended in 1945).

As seen in the U.S. and Britain, things were going badly in the war all through 1942. They were, battle by battle, action by action. But, below the surface, earlier German and Japanese strategic decisions already had doomed those countries to defeat,

A German leader other than Hitler might have been able to get a negotiated European peace, sparing millions of lives on the continent. But, by then, his ruthless killings of Jews, Slavs, other minorities and political opponents were evident. The allies called for "unconditional surrender." Hitler ordered all Germans to fight to the end. Japanese leaders thought that, after Pearl Harbor, a negotiated peace could be done with the United States. But they, too, misread our mindset. We would settle for nothing less than Japanese unconditional surrender as well. The Japanese leadership, in the samurai tradition, also vowed to fight to the end.

The human losses of World War II were staggering.

Some 3,000 Americans, British and Canadians were killed just in the D-Day invasion on Normandy beaches. In the ensuing Normandy campaign it is estimated that some 320,000 Germans were killed, wounded or missing, along with 135,000 Americans, 65,000 Brits and 18,000 Canadians. Between 12,000 and 20,000 French civilians are estimated to have met the same fates during the fighting. 

Estimates of overall war-related military and civilian deaths range from 65 to 85 million — about 2.5 percent of global population during World War II. Civilian war-related deaths were estimated from 38 to 55 million, military deaths 22 to 25 million, and prisoner-of-war deaths 5 million.

The Soviet Union paid by far the highest price, counting 22 to 28 million war-related deaths. China lost 10 to 20 million, Germany 7 to 9 million, Poland 5.7 million, Japan 2.5 to 3.1 million, India 1.5 to 2.5 million, France 550,000, the United Kingdom 450,000, and the United States 420,000. American losses were about half those suffered by Rumania and comparable to those of the Philippines.

There have been no major wars on U.S. soil since the Civil War. In the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf wars, and Afghanistan, the fighting was on others' soil, thus sparing us in particular the civilian casualties that other countries have experienced.

Friday should be observed soberly as a day on which Americans and others fought bravely, died and were wounded. D-Day helped defeat one of the most brutal and evil regimes in human history. But we should commemorate the day in the knowledge that others' sacrifices were larger than our own and that American families were spared in their homeland the death, destruction, cruelty and sheer terror that others around the world endured.

How is it possible, one asks, that national leaders can still contemplate war as an instrument for economic, political or other gain? The history of the species does not offer promise against the re-emergence of future Hitlers and Stalins to plague humanity. We've got to be watchful. In the meantime, Friday is a day to remember D-Day and our fellow citizens who served and sacrificed then, before and after for the rest of us.

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