History Faculty Reflect on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

June 6, 2014

Wesley Dick, professor of U.S. history, Albion CollegeWesley Arden Dick, professor of U.S. history

In viewing the Normandy commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and President Obama’s compelling speech there this morning, my thoughts turn to World War II, or “The War” as Ken Burns recently reminded viewers. “The War” touched every American family, every American town, and every American college campus. Albion and Albion College, of course, were no exceptions.

The City of Albion has an honor roll of those who died in World War II at Gold Star Park at Five Points between Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street. Thirty-eight names are inscribed there—a reminder of the high cost of freedom. Until this year, Albion College’s honor roll of alumni who gave their life to “The War” had been forgotten. Chris Blaker (class of 2014) and I thought that Albion College must have also paid a high cost in lives lost during World War II. Just recently, we identified an Albion College World War II honor roll that included 41 names of Albion College alumni who died in uniform during “The War.” Reflecting the ties between the campus and the community, three of the names are on both honor rolls. Three young men from Albion town, who also attended Albion College, were among the casualties of “The War.”

More than a thousand Albion College men and women served in the military; others aided on the home front. More than 2,000 Albion community citizens were in uniform; many more became “Rosie the Riveters” as Albion’s factories became part of the fabled “Arsenal of Democracy.” The town and the campus supported “The War” with bond drives, metal drives, and by honoring rationing. Albion’s campus became a training center for Air Force cadets.

One can tell the story of World War II through the lives of Albion residents, Albion College students, and Albion College faculty. And, Albion was represented in the preparation of D-Day and the Normandy Invasion itself. D-Day, we are reminded on this day, June 6, 2014, was pivotal in the outcome of “The War.” There were numerous other pivotal moments and places that were crucial in tipping the balance toward freedom, and the College and community were represented every step of the way. We have much to be proud of, but it is vital to record that history and to keep it alive. The Albion Public Library Veterans’ Project, directed by Robert Geyer and Leslie Dick, and the work of students such as Chris Blaker assure veterans’ stories are not lost.

As President Obama said this morning: “We are on this Earth for only a moment in time. And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here seventy years ago. So we have to tell their stories for them. We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for. We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy today, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” On this, the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, it is important to affirm that Albion College students and Albion citizens did die for freedom during “The War,” and we honor them by telling their stories.

Geoffrey Cocks, professor of European history, Albion CollegeGeoffrey Cocks, professor of European history

D-Day was an amazing triumph of military planning and logistics, while the success of the invasion indeed contributed to the utter destruction of Nazi Germany. In a broader historical perspective, however, it was the Nazi defeat in Russia that doomed the Third Reich. Most of the German troops defending the Normandy coastline were not first-line units and were also badly depleted in numbers. Among them were some Eastern European troops whose morale and effectiveness were questionable; there were even some Japanese soldiers the Nazis had "liberated" from the Russians who had captured them in the Manchurian skirmishes of 1939.

Still, the choice of Normandy was inspired, and by the time the Nazis brought their panzer divisions to bear on the battle, it was too late.