The Homer of D-Day


Maryland historian sees the Normandy invasion in epic scale

Catching Up With ... Joseph Balkoski

May 23, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Why was D-Day important?

Why is it remembered today?

Why will it be recognized for a thousand years?

Put these questions to Joe Balkoski, and he will understand immediately that these are not idle or obvious questions.

These are questions that consume his days.

Ultimately, he expects that June 6, 1944, the day Allied troops landed in Normandy and turned the tide in World War II, will live in perpetuity.

IIt has taken 60 years for the story of D-Day to seem as emblematic to Americans as Abraham Lincoln's appearance at Gettysburg. Balkoski, a Maryland author and historian, believes it marks an event of such consequence that it may equal the battles of Troy.

Epic. Mythic. Homeric.

Explaining why is at the core of his mission.

Why was D-Day important?

The history of World War II, and D-Day in particular, overwhelmed Balkoski's imagination as a child. He cannot pinpoint the origins of his compulsion. His father, a World War II veteran and son of Polish immigrants in Queens, N.Y., never talked about the war or showed any interest in its battles.

But details of D-Day, planted in his mind sometime around the age of 10 or 12, from someone or some place he can no longer recall, rooted and flourished. At Vassar College, and later at the University of Maryland, where he sought a Ph.D., teachers discouraged him from focusing on the battle. His parents, who saw their other children making wiser career choices, teased him: "Your brother takes pre-law courses; your sister takes pre-med courses; you take pre-unemployment courses."

Balkoski ignored them, abandoned the Ph.D., and pursued his passion. He has always suspected something odd about his fascination, and yet he has sacrificed to fund the research. He takes odd jobs, seeks grants.

Working also as a freelance military historian on salary for the U.S. government and the Maryland National Guard, he has spent years interviewing veterans, becoming familiar with Normandy beaches and studying the battle, technology and archival record.

In 1989, he published his first book about the invasion, Beyond the Beachhead (Stackpole Books). It celebrates the 29th Infantry Division, made up mostly of Virginia and Maryland National Guard troops. It was just the beginning. He recently published Omaha Beach (Stackpole Books), the first of what he expects will be four volumes about the battles at Normandy beaches and the inland struggle that culminated in Allied victory.

These conflicts, he says, rival the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, yet remain little appreciated or understood by the American public.

Today, for people taking his courses at local colleges, he explains plainly why D-Day was important: "D-Day represents the profound question that Americans must have had in their minds at the time: `Are we good enough to defeat the forces of darkness?' "

By June 1944, 2 1/2 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, most American soldiers had not seen combat, he says. D-Day changed that. After the bold attack at Omaha Beach and the other beaches - beginning the world's largest air, land, and sea operation - the United States went full-tilt to destroy Hitler.

"Before D-Day, there was a lot of doubt," Balkoski tells his students. "But we inculcated our soldiers with the spirit they needed. We equipped them with our best equipment and technology to do the job. We geared up industry to unprecedented levels to support the invasion in the only way it would have succeeded - in an overwhelming way. D-Day was the moment the country finally understood that the confidence instilled in it was justified. ... Eleven months later, Hitler was dead, and the war in Europe was over."

Why is D-Day commemorated today?

Sunday, June 6, 2004, marks the 60th anniversary.

Balkoski will be in Normandy with Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and about 450 veterans, their families and young National Guard soldiers. He will lead tours. He will tell stories.

President George W. Bush will also speak that day, joined by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. It is an international commemoration.

"The further you get away from a monumental period in history, the more narrowly you have to define it with a representative event," Balkoski says. "The same thing happened with the Civil War, so that today, for many people, it's Gettysburg that defines the whole issue. The same is now happening with this."

D-Day, Balkoski says, was one of hundreds of important military operations in World War II, but it has come to symbolize something greater. "It was not just American ... victory was not inevitable ... everything about D-Day was extremely arduous," he says. "There was tremendous doubt, and yet also tremendous confidence."

What Americans have begun to realize about the battle at Normandy, he believes, transcends both the battle and the war, uniting Normandy with Valley Forge, revealing an impulse that is unique and distinctly American.

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