By Paul Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Every year on November 11th people all over the world honor and thank those who served their country. Today in the United States November 11th is known as Veterans Day, but until 1954 it was Armistice Day, honoring the millions who had served or been killed in World War I. The killing had ended on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
Seventy-five years ago, November 11th, 1942, Armistice Day fell right in the middle of World War II. It was a remarkable day, in one of the most extraordinary weeks of the war. It was the week that marked a decisive turning point in favor of the Allies. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had suffered through years of defeats and setbacks at the hands of Adolf Hitler. President Franklin Roosevelt and the United States had finally joined the battle after Japan’s “dastardly attacks” but the Axis powers seemed unstoppable.
The week began on Sunday the 8th with Operation Torch, the landing of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops in North Africa. President Roosevelt wrote a letter that was delivered to every solider and sailor in the U.S. Expeditionary Force as they were about to storm the beaches of North Africa. He told them:
“You have embarked for distant places where the war is being fought.
Upon the outcome depends the freedom of your lives: the freedom of the lives of those you love – your fellow- citizens – your people.
Never were the enemies of freedom more tyrannical, more arrogant, more brutal.”
Operation Torch was a massive undertaking and the first real test of the combined British and American forces against battle-hardened Nazi’s. From Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, to Oran and Algiers on the Mediterranean, Allied troops and tanks poured ashore. It was a great relief to Roosevelt and Churchill when the hundreds of thousands of French Troops stationed in Morocco turned against the Vichy French and their Nazi overlords and joined the Allies.
Halfway around the world U.S. Marines won a series of land battles and gained the upper hand against the Japanese on Guadalcanal. A decisive naval battle would force Imperial Japan to withdraw from the island.
At the same time British General Bernard Montgomery and his army were attacking Gen. Rommel at El Alamein, avenging their earlier defeat and driving the Germans out of Egypt. Before the end of the week the British would recapture Tobruk, squeezing Rommel between two Allied armies.
Churchill referred to himself as “Former Naval Person” in his top secret messages to FDR. His message #187 arrived at the White House on November 7thth.. In it he reveals some details of the stunning victory underway at El Alamein – 20,000 prisoners, 350 tanks captured, 400 artillery pieces.
President Roosevelt replies on November 11th, “I am very happy with the latest news of your splendid campaign in Egypt, and of the success that has attended our joint landing in West and North Africa.”
For Winston Churchill, after three years of bloody battles and blistering defeats from Dunkirk to Singapore, this was finally a sweet victory. His heroic rhetoric has inspired a nation in its darkest hours– after the evacuation from Dunkirk, when all seemed lost, Churchill bravely declared:
”We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills: we shall never surrender!”
During the Battle of Britain in 1940, as a ragtag Royal Air Force held off the mighty German Luftwaffe he proclaimed: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
It sums up his deep devotion and respect for those in uniform who came to their countries aid in its time of need. It is the essence of what Veterans Day stands for – thanks from the many to the few.
Now finally, on November 10th, 1942 he stood before his countrymen at the Lord Mayor’s Luncheon describing the rout of Rommel and proudly declared: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. “
On the other side of the Atlantic President Roosevelt was preparing his own speech, one that while often overlooked, ranks among his best. It was the first Armistice Day since Pearl Harbor, the first November 11th since America had gone to war. A devoted student of history, Roosevelt understood the importance of this moment. Seven million American boys were now in uniform, fighting and dying in distant lands, from South Pacific islands to African deserts.
At 10:45 am President Roosevelt left the White House and traveled to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. His paralyzed legs encased in steel braces, he stood at attention next to the legendary General John Pershing, hero of World War I, as the wreath was laid at the tomb. Moments later, wearing his naval cape, he stood at the podium surrounded by thousands of veterans and widows, servicemen and anxious families. He spoke to them and to millions around the world listening on the radio. He began softly.
“Here in Arlington we are in the presence of the honored dead. We are accountable to them – and to the generations yet unborn for whom they gave their lives.”
He connected the fight against German militarism in World War I to the fight against the Nazis and the Japanese, accusing them of using
“…all the mechanics of modern civilization to drive humanity back to conditions of pre-historic savagery. They sought to conquer the world, and for a time they seemed to be successful in realizing their boundless ambition. They overran great territories. They enslaved – they killed. But, today, we know and they know that they have conquered nothing. Today, they face inevitable, final defeat.”
Roosevelt had a deep personal connection to his words that day. Not only had he served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, but all four of his sons were serving in active duty that day. His son James was leading the Marine 4th Raider Battalion and had been involved in a commando raid near Guadalcanal in which he almost lost his life.
FDR’s closing words ring true today:
“We stand in the presence of the honored dead. We stand accountable to them, and to the generations yet unborn for whom they gave their lives. God, the Father of all living, watches over these hallowed graves and blesses the souls of those who rest here. May He keep us strong in the courage that will win this war, and may He impart to us the wisdom and the vision that we shall need for true victory in the peace which is to come.”
The final scene from that remarkable week 75 years ago took place on Sunday morning, November 15th. For nearly three years, since the Battle of Britain, England’s church bells had been silent – they were to be used only to warn of a German invasion. Finally, in celebration of the great victories in North Africa, bells rang out once again all across the land.
The lessons we can learn from World War Two are both profuse and profound. Today we are once again engaged in a global war, not against sovereign nations but against rogue states and terrorist organizations. However, whether we will be able to find the “wisdom and vision that we shall need for true victory in the peace which is to come” remains the burning question of our time. What stands without question is our duty and commitment to honor all those who served.