There were 36,525 days in the 20th century.  Which one stands out to you as most important?  My choice is “The Longest Day.”

Arguably, one day among all the days in previous centuries can be singled out as most important. Some would say of the 1800s, for example, that it was July 3, 1863, and the Battle of Gettysburg.  In the 1700s, it’d have to be July 4, 1776. Then there’s October 12, 1492, the day Christopher Columbus first caught sight of the New World, and June 19, 1215, the day King John signed the Magna Carta, establishing a rule of law and the founding of the rights of free men.

Of course, “The Longest Day” is June 6, 1944.  We celebrate it today, June 6, 2014, on its 70th anniversary.  The largest armada in world history got underway early that June day when the English Channel was crossed by ships and planes that carried more than 100,000 American, British and Canadian troops.

In a radio broadcast later that day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the invasion against the “unholy forces of our enemy.”  He hoped for a great victory that would result in a seismic shift for the world’s nations toward democratic principles and practices rather than dictatorships.

Along with prayers for success, Roosevelt and the Allies knew, after five years of exhausting war, that, if the greatest amphibious operation should fail, it’d be war-exhausted difficult to go back to the drawing board and start over again.  Then, too, the intervening time would enable the Nazis to erect an even more impenetrable Europe and further develop weapons that already had the Allies in a cold sweat.

So, there was no backup plan: Communications between Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower and American General Omar Bradley read that “this operation is not being planned with any alternatives.”  After many agonizing sessions between and among the leaders of the Allied forces, Winston Churchill among them, over where to land the invasion forces, including sites from Norway to southern France, Normandy was chosen to strike at “Fortress Europe.”

Normandy was generally considered the least likely spot in the German mind and therefore afforded the Allies the opportunity for a measure of surprise.  Surprise was critically important for Operation Overlord’s success for many reasons, including a logistics problem for the Nazis with their battalions concentrated elsewhere, to rush reinforcements from elsewhere to the landing sites.

Of course, though there were great risks and challenges to the Allies, it was a well planned attack and, astonishingly enough, remained a secret as there were several elaborate efforts designed to mislead the Nazi Wehrmacht.  Whatever the case, it was one of the biggest military gambles of all time.  With considerable loss of life, the Allies ultimately gained a foothold in France and headed thereafter east into Germany with Berlin the biggest target.  Almost a year after the Normandy landings, on May 7, 1945, the Third Reich surrendered to the Allies.

It required extraordinary courage, bravery, valor and boldness to face the shore and the entrenched German army as the Allied troops did on that fateful day, knowing full well for each that it could very well be his last day.  Yet, with jaw set, each proceeded into harm’s way.  June 6, 1944, the date that sealed the beginning of the end of one Axis power was soon followed by the fall of the Empire of Japan in August, 1945, thereby securing in victory the protection and preservation of the U.S. and all the world’s democracies.

All Americans owe a huge debt to those who fought that day.  A lasting tribute to them is to forever remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, being grateful, now and always, to those who survived and those who did not, that they were willing to face death to save our nation and the freedom-loving American people.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)