One of my few family heirlooms, one that travels around with me when I move, is a map my father made tracing his wartime service in Europe as part of the 186th Field Artillery Battalion, V Corps Artillery, from June 8, 1944 ("D-Day + 2") to May 9, 1945. Historical attention has rightly emphasized the heroic exploits of the initial landings on D-Day, but the landings continued as artillery and other units came ashore in the days that followed the first assault. My father illustrated his map with military markings whose meaning is now lost to me. But it clearly traces his route from the D+2 landing at Omaha Beach through Normandy (Caumont, St. Lo) and on to Paris. From Paris, the map marks my father's route into the Rhineland and the Ardennes and the defense of Monschau-Eupen-Liege. (My father did not talk overly much about his war experience, but when he did the Battle of the Bulge usually loomed large in his recollections). The route continues through Germany to the Elbe, then down into what is now the Czech Republic, where the war ended for my father in Pilsen.
I see the map on my wall every day. I don't look at it - i.e., study it carefully - that often, but its lessons are never lost on me. Born in 1919, my father grew up in the Depression, in a large immigrant family, in a densely populated neighborhood - with all the economic and cultural deprivations and social and cultural riches that went with that life. It's a life that was still recognizable in the world I grew up in, even as as new world was being born in which my generation would have access to different riches (and experience different deprivations). For my father and so many of his generation it was that overseas war that was most fully formative. That we now aptly call them "the greatest generation," is a testament not only to the world-historical impact of their war service but to how it defined them. And, of course, its legacy defined us, the greatest generation's "baby boomer" heirs.
Next year's 70th anniversary of D-Day will undoubtedly inspire perceptive reflections on the greatest generation's larger historical accomplishment. On this 69th anniversary of my father's landing in Normandy, however, two considerations emerge as foremost in my thinking. The first is one of appreciation for the greatest generation and gratitude for giving us boomers a far better world than the one they had been left. The second is the sense of regret that we have not done the same for the generations after us.