TIME georgia

Last Crew Member of Enola Gay Dies in Georgia

Obit Enola Gay Survivor
Theodore "Dutch" VanKirk, in Stone Mountain, Ga., Aug. 25, 2010. Bita Honarvar—AP

He was 93

(ATLANTA) — The last surviving member of the crew that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, hastening the end of World War II and forcing the world into the atomic age, has died in Georgia.

Theodore VanKirk, also known as “Dutch,” died Monday of natural causes at the retirement home where he lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia, his son Tom VanKirk said. He was 93.

VanKirk flew nearly 60 bombing missions, but it was a single mission in the Pacific that secured him a place in history. He was 24 years old when he served as navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb deployed in wartime over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

He was teamed with pilot Paul Tibbets and bombardier Tom Ferebee in Tibbets’ fledgling 509th Composite Bomb Group for Special Mission No. 13.

The mission went perfectly, VanKirk told The Associated Press in a 2005 interview. He guided the bomber through the night sky, just 15 seconds behind schedule, he said. As the 9,000-pound bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” fell toward the sleeping city, he and his crewmates hoped to escape with their lives.

They didn’t know whether the bomb would actually work and, if it did, whether its shockwaves would rip their plane to shreds. They counted — one thousand one, one thousand two — reaching the 43 seconds they’d been told it would take for detonation and heard nothing.

“I think everybody in the plane concluded it was a dud. It seemed a lot longer than 43 seconds,” VanKirk recalled.

Then came a bright flash. Then a shockwave. Then another shockwave.

The blast and its aftereffects killed 140,000 in Hiroshima.

Three days after Hiroshima, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The blast and its aftermath claimed 80,000 lives. Six days after the Nagasaki bombing, Japan surrendered.

Whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb has been debated endlessly. VanKirk told the AP he thought it was necessary because it shortened the war and eliminated the need for an Allied land invasion that could have cost more lives on both sides.

“I honestly believe the use of the atomic bomb saved lives in the long run. There were a lot of lives saved. Most of the lives saved were Japanese,” VanKirk said.

But it also made him wary of war.

“The whole World War II experience shows that wars don’t settle anything. And atomic weapons don’t settle anything,” he said. “I personally think there shouldn’t be any atomic bombs in the world — I’d like to see them all abolished.

“But if anyone has one,” he added, “I want to have one more than my enemy.”

VanKirk stayed on with the military for a year after the war ended. Then he went to school, earned degrees in chemical engineering and signed on with DuPont, where he stayed until he retired in 1985. He later moved from California to the Atlanta area to be near his daughter.

Like many World War II veterans, VanKirk didn’t talk much about his service until much later in his life when he spoke to school groups, his son said.

“I didn’t even find out that he was on that mission until I was 10 years old and read some old news clippings in my grandmother’s attic,” Tom VanKirk told the AP in a phone interview Tuesday.

Instead, he and his three siblings treasured a wonderful father, who was a great mentor and remained active and “sharp as a tack” until the end of his life.

“I know he was recognized as a war hero, but we just knew him as a great father,” Tom VanKirk said.

VanKirk’s military career was chronicled in a 2012 book, “My True Course,” by Suzanne Dietz. VanKirk was energetic, very bright and had a terrific sense of humor, Dietz recalled Tuesday.

Interviewing VanKirk for the book, she said, “was like sitting with your father at the kitchen table listening to him tell stories.”

A funeral service was scheduled for VanKirk on Aug. 5 in his hometown of Northumberland, Pennsylvania. He will be buried in Northumberland next to his wife, who died in 1975. The burial will be private.

TIME White House

Obama is the Worst President Since World War II, Poll Says

Obama Cabinet Meeting
President Barack Obama pauses during a cabinet meeting at the White House on July 1 in Washington, DC. Pool—Getty Images

Falling behind his predecessor George W. Bush

More Americans consider Barack Obama to be the worst President since World War II than they do any other president, according to a new poll.

The Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday found that 33% of Americans see Obama as the worst post-war president, while just 8% consider him the best. Another 28% see former President George W. Bush as the worst. Richard Nixon, the only American President ever to resign in disgrace, was picked the worst by 13%, according to the poll.

And 45% of Americans think the U.S. would be better off if Mitt Romney had been elected President in 2012, according to the poll, while 38% think the country would be worse off.

Ronald Reagan was the most common answer among those surveyed for the best President since World War II, with 35% choosing the Republican icon. Another 18% chose Bill Clinton, and 15% chose John F. Kennedy.

The survey of 1,446 registered voters, conducted June 24-30, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

TIME

Japan’s Cabinet Eases Post-WWII Limits on Military

TOKYO — Since Japan’s defeat in World War II, its military has been shackled by restrictions imposed by a victorious U.S. and that, over time, a majority of Japanese adopted as their own. Now, the shackles are being loosened.

Japan’s Cabinet on Tuesday approved a reinterpretation of the country’s pacifist postwar constitution that will allow the military to help defend allies and others “in a close relationship” with Japan under what is known as “collective self-defense.”

Previous governments have said the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution limited the use of force to defending Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the shift is needed to protect the lives of the Japanese people in an increasingly severe security environment. Japanese warships would be able to help protect U.S. ships that were defending Japan, he said.

“Peace is not something you expect to be given, but it’s something that we must achieve on our own,” he said in a televised news conference.

The issue has divided Japan, where many worry about China’s growing military assertiveness but also support the anti-war clause of the constitution and fret about a possible slide toward the militarism that led to World War II.

About 2,000 people protested outside Abe’s office, saying that any change to the constitution should be made through a public referendum, not simply a Cabinet reinterpretation.

“For 70 years, Japan has kept its peace with its constitution,” said 67-year-old protester Toshio Ban. “What are we to do with that stupid man trying to trample over the precious constitution?”

The move drew sharp criticism from China, and a cautious reaction from South Korea, which was colonized by Japan from 1910 to 1945.

“Beijing opposes Japan’s act of hyping the China threat,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing. The new policy “raises doubts about Japan’s approach to peaceful development.”

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il said: “The South Korean government views it as a significant revision to the defense and security policy under the postwar peace constitution, and is paying a sharp attention to it.”

Written under U.S. direction after World War II, the 1947 constitution says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” The article was crafted to prevent a repeat of Japan’s invasion and brutal occupation of wide swaths of Asia.

America’s position shifted quickly with the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. The U.S. began to see Japan as an ally in the Cold War and pressed its former enemy to rearm. Today, with America’s military financially stretched, the U.S. is backing whatever Japan can do to play a larger role in regional security.

The Japanese, though, particularly older generations, have witnessed Japan’s success under the constitution, even if the postwar economic miracle has lost some luster in the last two decades.

“Most Japanese, over two-thirds, feel that this peace constitution is part of their identity,” said Jeff Kingston, head of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.

The Cabinet decision is hardly the first loosening of the shackles. The constitutional ban has been relaxed several times over the years, starting with the introduction of a “police” force during the Korean War, which became a military dubbed the Self-Defense Force in 1954.

A major turning point came after the 1991 Gulf War, when a wealthy Japan was criticized for contributing money but not “boots on the ground.” After hostilities ended, Japan sent mine sweepers to the Gulf as part of U.N. mission, triggering massive protests at home.

A special law passed in 1992 allowed the military to participate in U.N. election monitoring in Cambodia, the first overseas deployment of troops since World War II.

Japan enacted a set of laws in 2003 to enable troops to join the U.N. Iraq reconstruction mission. But Japanese soldiers were only allowed to fire in self-defense, and had to be escorted by Dutch, British and Australian troops, something Japanese conservatives saw as an embarrassment.

The government has no immediate plans to change the constitution, which has never been amended. But Abe and subsequent governments will now be empowered to authorize greater military engagement under the new interpretation of the charter.

Opponents worry the new policy could be a step toward eventual participation in joint military actions such as the war in Iraq.

Abe said his government stands by its current position of not sending troops to overseas battlefields. An agreement with junior coalition partner New Komeito includes restrictions on when Japan can exercise collective self-defense.

“Japan’s status as a peaceful country will not change,” Abe said.

Buddhist-backed New Komeito initially opposed the change, and Tuesday’s Cabinet decision came after weeks of negotiations between the two parties.

Takeshi Iwaya, a lawmaker who chairs a ruling party research commission on security, said Japan has long said it won’t repeat the mistakes of World War II, but that is no longer enough to preserve peace.

“Up to now, Japan has said it will never do anything wrong and merely wish for peace,” he said in an interview. “What we are trying to do now is to play a more proactive role.”

TIME Crime

89-Year-Old Man Accused of Assisting in Nazi Genocide

The word Auschwitz, denoting name of Nazi concentration camp, is seen at Gleis 17 memorial in Berlin
The word Auschwitz, denoting the name of the Nazi concentration camp at the Gleis 17 (platform 17) memorial commemorating Jews who were deported from Grunewald train station during World War Two in Berlin January 25, 2014. Thomas Peter—Reuters

Germany has charged him with 158 counts of aiding and abetting Nazi attrocities

An 89-year-old Philadelphia man was arrested by U.S. officials Tuesday and a day later charged by German authorities with 158 counts of assisting in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jewish prisoners and others while he was a Nazi guard at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Johann “Hans” Breyer, a retired toolmaker from Czechoslovakia, is the oldest person ever arrested in connection with crimes committed during the Holocaust, according to the New York Times.

Officials say Breyer joined the paramilitary Waffen-SS force at age 17, and later worked at Birkenau, a section of the concentration camp at Auschwitz that housed gas chambers. Breyer admitted to the Associated Press that he worked as a guard at Auschwitz-Berkenau, but he said his duties kept him outside the facility and he had nothing to do with the killings committed inside the gates.

Breyer’s attorney, Dennis Boyle, tried to get Breyer released on bail Wednesday, arguing that he is too frail to be detained. But prosecutors said the facility where Breyer is being taken is equipped to take care of him. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice said Breyer appeared to understand the proceedings and would not be granted bail due to the “the serious nature of the crime.”

Breyer’s arrest renews a case that officials in multiple countries have pursued for years. The U.S. Justice Department first accused Breyer of Nazi ties in 1992 and fought to deport him until 2003, according to the AP. The DOJ questioned whether Breyer lied about his Nazi involvement when applying for citizenship or whether he could have citizenship through his mother, who was born in the U.S. He was allowed to stay in the U.S. largely because he joined the SS as a minor.

Germany now wants Breyer extradited so he can stand trial for the charges against him in that country.

[New York Times]

TIME europe

President Obama Honors Sacrifices of D-Day Veterans

+ READ ARTICLE

Updated Friday at 9:56 a.m.

President Barack Obama called for recognition of the allied forces who turned the tide of history during a stirring speech in Normandy, France, on Friday morning at a ceremony to honor the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.

“It was here on these shores that the tide was turned in the common struggle for freedom,” Obama said. “Whenever the world makes you cynical, stop and think of these men.”

The Commander-in-Chief cited the sacrifices of the fallen and the 70 years of democratic movement that spawned in the wake of World War II as aging veterans paid their respects to the tens of thousands of young soldiers who were killed during the opening days of Operation Overlord.

More than 150,000 troops participated in the invasion by land, sea and air in the early hours of June 6, 1944. Tens of thousands of British and North American troops stormed the beachheads of the German-occupied Norman coastline amid the largest amphibious assault in the history of warfare.

Allied forces suffered an estimated 10,000 casualties during the first 24 hours of the bloody 77-day campaign. The invasion succeeded in punching a massive hole into the Nazi war machine’s western defenses and marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s reign.

“More than 20,000 Americans paid with their lives here in Normandy,” French President François Hollande said during the ceremony’s opening remarks. “They were your parents, your brothers, your friends. They were our liberators.”

After their speeches, Obama and Hollande placed a wreath at a memorial in the cemetery honoring those who died fighting to fascist’s forces in northern France.

Europe was primarily carved into two ideological camps in wake of the collapse of Nazi Germany, pitting Washington against Moscow. More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, tensions between East and West have again burst to the surface.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea this past March upped hostilities in Europe to one of the highest levels in decades. Despite the tension, Obama attended a post-speech lunch hosted by Hollande at the American cemetery with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama and Putin had an informal conversation “on the margins” of the lunch for 10 to 15 minutes, according to pool reports.

TIME

Rising From Ruins: D-Day Landscapes, Then and Now

Past and present are joined together in photographs that combine scenes from D-Day 70 years ago with the very same locations in Normandy today

The scale of destruction unleashed in Normandy on and after D-Day beggars the imagination. On the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, TIME commemorates that epic invasion through a series of images that combine photographs taken seven decades ago along with contemporary pictures made by Getty photographer Peter Macdiarmid. As leaders throughout the world gather in Normandy Friday, the result is an uncanny mixture of past and present.

TIME Transportation

Two Killed in Crash of WWII-Era Plane

The two-seater wrecked in Washington state

Two men were killed Wednesday when a small World War II-era airplane crashed in Washington state.

The two-seater aircraft crashed at about 3:30 p.m. in a wooded area after sputtering and flying low, a local station reported. The Federal Aviation Administration identified the plane was a North American AT-6C, King 5 News said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has reportedly been informed of the incident.

[King5 News]

TIME Military

Last of the Navajo Code Talkers Dies at 93

Chester Nez
Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez waits backstage for a speaking engagement at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington N.M. on Nov. 1, 2012. Jon Austria—AP

Chester Nez was one of 29 Native Americans whose work creating a secret code was instrumental in World War II

Chester Nez, the last surviving member of the original band of Navajo Native Americans whose code helped the Allies win World War II, died Wednesday. He was 93 and suffered from kidney failure, Reuters reports.

Nez was one of the original 29 Navajo recruited by the Marine Corps to develop a secret code based on their native language for use in wartime communication. Because the language is unwritten, spoken only in the American Southwest and known to less than 30 non-Navajo people, Reuters reports, American forces accurately predicted that Japan would be unable to crack the code.

“It saddens me to hear the last of the original code talkers has died,” Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told Reuters. “We are proud of these young men.”

“I was very proud to say that the Japanese did everything in their power to break that code but they never did,” Nez said before receiving the Audie Murphy Award for distinguished service by the American Veterans Center last November.

Navajo code talkers served in all six Marine divisions and six were killed during the war.

[Reuters]

MORE: The Last Speakers of the Lost Whistling Language, Sylbo

TIME

The Winding Road to D-Day

Washington Conference: Churchill And Roosevelt
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D, Roosevelt at a special meeting of the Pacific War Council during World War Two on June 26, 1942. Keystone-France—Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

FDR’s patient diplomacy in 1942 and 1943 made Operation Overlord possible in 1944

It was, Winston Churchill noted at the time, “a strange Christmas Eve.” Only weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war on the U.S., Churchill crossed the Atlantic aboard the H.M.S. Duke of York for conversations with Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1941. Eleanor Roosevelt was asked to lay in stocks of brandy, champagne and whiskey (Churchill brought his own cigars); the work at hand was to be all-consuming. “Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle,” Churchill said during the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, “and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other.” The issue before Churchill and FDR was the most fundamental of all: how best to wage a world war against the Axis powers.

During the discussions, British and American officials affirmed the earlier product of joint staff talks. Code-named ABC-1, the military conferences, held in Washington in the first months of 1941, had asserted the primacy of defeating Germany first. The other potential global foe, Japan, would be taken on only secondarily. With his industrial might and Continental base, Adolf Hitler was viewed as the predominating opponent whose defeat the Anglo-American alliance would come to see as the common cause.

On the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the amphibious assault on Nazi-occupied Europe, we understandably celebrate the Normandy landings as the central act of the 20th century; what Churchill called “the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place” is one of the great hinges of history. Yet the road to the opening of the Second Front in northwest Europe was by no means a simple one. The story of D-Day is as much about years of diplomatic skirmishing among Churchill, Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin as it is about the landings themselves on the beaches where President Obama and other world leaders will gather this week. And in that convoluted tale lies a lesson in leadership, for FDR’s patient maneuvering in 1941, ’42 and ’43 was that of a President at once constrained and determined as he sought the right answer in the calamitous times. What seems straightforward in retrospect was, in real time, highly improvisational—­and at moments, dare we say it, Franklin Roosevelt led from behind.

As 1942 began, several key American figures—­notably Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and General Dwight Eisenhower—argued for a predictably American strategy. If the target were Germany first, they argued, then hit Germany first, hard and quickly. The fastest way to relieve the immense pressure on Stalin was to cross the English Channel in 1942. There was a problem, though: Winston Churchill.

The Prime Minister was averse to a large-scale strike against Germany for at least two reasons. The first was biographical. As First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill had presided over the disastrous Gallipoli strategy that killed 28,000 British soldiers in the ill-considered invasion of Turkey. The experience crushed him. (Afterward he resigned from the government and led an infantry battalion at the front in France.) As scholars have long noted, the second reason was his tendency to prefer secondary operations on the periphery of Hitler’s empire, in the hopes of weakening the enemy at less cost and—though this was and is much disputed—placing British troops in position to protect colonial and postwar interests.

Stalin, for his part, wanted a Second Front in Europe not today, not tomorrow, but yesterday. And so Roosevelt found himself in the midst of a push-and-pull between London and Moscow. Churchill carried the day for 1942 and ’43, arguing for other operations and suggesting that there were not yet sufficient resources to mount a successful attack on the French coast. As much as FDR wanted to take the direct route across the Channel, he at first sided with Churchill against Stalin, approving a Mediterranean strategy.

For Roosevelt the hour of decision came at Tehran in November 1943. Stalin pressed and pressed for a cross-Channel operation, and Churchill, while always agreeing in principle, managed to raise a seemingly infinite number of reasons to delay. Stalin spoke starkly: Were his Western allies truly with him or not? Roosevelt then made his choice, insisting on Overlord and overruling Churchill. The industrial might of America had by now built a huge war machine; the men were trained; and in that moment in the Tehran autumn, the new world of competing superpowers, with Britain in a subsidiary role, came into being.

Roosevelt was right to make the call he made at Tehran, which led to Overlord in June 1944; Churchill was also right early on in resisting a hasty cross-Channel operation. “It is fun to be in the same decade with you,” Roosevelt once told Churchill. For the rest of us, it was more than fun. As the triumph of Overlord proved beyond doubt, it was providential.

TIME World War II

D-Day Anniversary Marks Farewell For ‘Greatest Generation’

FRANCE-WWII-DDAY-ANNIVERSARY-US
US WWII veteran Edward W.Oleksak, who landed on June 6, 1944 in Omaha Beach, poses in front of the statue ''Les Braves'' by French sculptor Anilore Banon, on June 2, 2014 in Omaha Beach, near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Joel Saget—AFP/Getty Images

The 70th anniversary will be far more poignant than past ones, for one reason: It is the last time veterans will be there in any significant number

Correction appended: June 4.

It has been a long goodbye. And this week, the world might be saying its last big farewell to what’s been dubbed “the greatest generation,” those who fought in World War II, and especially in its most pivotal battle of D-Day on June 6, 1944. This raises profound questions for veterans and historians about how future generations will remember the event, when there are no survivors left—and more crucially, how to make sure they will care.

For the 70th anniversary of that momentous fight, hundreds of those still living who took part in the mammoth D-Day sea invasion of Nazi-occupied France are converging on the beaches of Normandy all week, to mark the largest amphibious landing of the war—indeed, of any modern war. The D-Day invasion broke the German occupation of Europe, finally liberating the horrifying Nazi concentration camps and ending the conflict that left much of Western Europe (including Normandy) in physical and economic ruin. The invasion force that week in 1944 consisted of a giant armada of about 5,000 warships, 54,000 vehicles and 300,000 soldiers, from the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and several other countries, who staggered ashore, and then fought their way through Normandy, village by village, crushing or driving back the German platoons in their path under heavy aerial bombardment, in a vicious three-month battle.

As they have every five years on June 6, world leaders will gather on Friday at Normandy’s war cemeteries to honor tens of thousands of fallen soldiers, including thousands of Germans, who lie buried along the French coastline of the English Channel. In all, about 100,000 soldiers on both sides, and about 20,000 Normandy citizens, died in the battle. Dozens of villages are marking this week with photo exhibitions, veterans’ gatherings, fireworks, and military fly-pasts, including from hundreds of U.S., British and Russian forces, who will jump from World War II-era planes on to the beaches.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to wrap up his three-day European trip to Warsaw, Brussels and France with a wreath-laying ceremony on Friday morning, together with French President François Hollande, at the U.S. war cemetery in the tiny village of Colleville-sur-Mer—the burial site for 9,387 young Americans, most of whom were just teenagers in June 1944, and whose names are now marked with rows of simple white crosses or Stars of David. On Friday, Obama and Hollande will join leaders from those countries who fought the Nazis in an international ceremony on Normandy’s Sword Beach, in the village of Ouistreham. In a day likely to be overshadowed by tensions over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin will take part, commemorating Russia’s heavy loss of life against German forces. And in a sign of Europe’s postwar unity, the ceremonies also honor about 23,000 young German soldiers killed in Normandy in 1944, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and many German veterans attending.

Though the cemetery scenes will closely resemble previous big D-Day anniversaries, this one will be far more poignant, for one reason: It is the last time veterans will be there in any significant number.

Dwindling fast, the comrades-in-arms of those killed are now in their late-eighties and early-nineties. For days, they have been arriving in Normandy, hobbling on canes or pushed in wheelchairs in cemeteries, their hands shakily placing flowers on the graves. Dressed in their World War II uniforms, they are acutely aware that it is likely their final visit—and in many cases, it is their only visit. While Hollywood has memorialized their courage many times, including in Tom Hanks’ hit movie Saving Private Ryan and the TV series Band of Brothers, the survivors will no longer be around to tell their stories.

D-Day veterans say they fear that as their generation fades, so too might the interest in their experience. “I know very well that for the 80th anniversary, I might not be there, and I am afraid people might forget the war, and the misery it brought,” Bernard Dargols, 94, a D-Day veteran in the U.S. Army, said while sitting in his apartment outside Paris on Saturday. “The one reason I am asked to tell my story is that there are so few of us veterans left. I didn’t read these things in books. I was there.”

Dargols, a Paris-born Jew, immigrated to the U.S. in 1938 to work for a sewing-machine distributor in Manhattan, became a U.S. citizen, and landed on Normandy’s Omaha Beach six years later as a U.S. Army staff sergeant, as part of the D-Day armada. As a native French speaker, he became a crucial U.S. intelligence agent, able to sneak into Norman villages to pinpoint German positions and determine on which roads the enemy forces had laid landmines. In 2008, Normandy officials named a road after him.

Dargols says he had badly wanted to fight the Germans, after seeing newsreel footage in a Manhattan movie theater of Adolph Hitler shaking hands with the French leader Philippe Pétain, whose government collaborated in deporting about 73,000 Jews from France to the Nazi concentration camps. Many of Dargols’ relatives and friends died in the camps, although his father and two brothers escaped to New York during the war. His mother survived the Nazi occupation of Paris by hiding in her apartment building—a fact Dargols learned only in 1944, when, as an American G.I., he drove his Jeep into the courtyard underneath the family apartment, after Paris’ liberation, and found his mother alive. He later moved back to Paris. Seventy years later, Dargols says he still recalls the intense terror he felt during the D-Day invasion, as he came ashore under a heavy barrage of bombs, with only minimal military training, and not a day’s combat experience. “I was very scared,” he says.

Perhaps because of Hollywood’s depiction, many Americans now regard D-Day and the battle for Normandy as one they were sure to win. But at the time it was an immense gamble, as U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower warned young American soldiers in a radio address before they boarded the D-Day ships on the English coast. “Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened,” Eisenhower told them. “He will fight savagely.” Bad weather had forced Eisenhower to postpone the D-Day invasion one day, and further delays could have forced a long postponement, possibly prolonging World War II for another year. “Eisenhower’s decision to go on June 6 was one of the bravest decisions of the war,” says British war historian Antony Beevor, author of “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.” Beevor says the German forces were disciplined and strong, more tham many U.S. and British soldiers.

The D-Day story has been simplified in other ways too, including glossing over many of the tensions between then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill worried that central Europe might be left in Communist hands, if the Red Army was allowed to advance during the Germans’ collapse, and argued—in vain—for the U.S. to invade Europe also through Italy, in order to stop the Soviet advance. “The U.S. didn’t understand the implications of the post-war period,” Beevor says. “As far as the Americans were concerned, they wanted to get the war over and done with.” In the end, Churchill was proved right.

But 70 years after D-Day, one fact remains, says Beevor: The war was for many Americans the last great moral combat. “The reason why World War II has such a powerful influence on our imagination is because the moral choices were so great and important,” Beevor says. “That’s the most important lesson for younger generations.”

And at least for now, veterans like Dargols are here to teach it.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of warships involved in the invasion armada. It was an estimated 5,000 ships.

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