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Posted: June 5, 2011 12:30 a.m.

History replete with improbabilities

I can be predictable in my columns.

December typically features a re-examination of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the Battle of the Bulge bears retelling later that month.

Early July's focus is Gettysburg and Independence Day.

This column, the first for June, presents a difficult choice between two awesome examples of American courage, determination and tenacity.

One is Operation Overlord, the 1944 Allied invasion at Normandy, France, better known as D-Day.

The other is the utterly improbable 1942 American naval victory at the Battle of Midway.

Both events bear scrutiny by schoolchildren and people of all ages, actually.

Lessons in what makes an American an American, how it is that some rise to perform above and beyond the call of duty in the name of something larger than one's self, the fine line between physical and metaphysical, these and other topics can be plumbed until they offer illumination for those who seek a greater understanding.

I don't have all the answers. In fact, sometimes just as I think I've finally found a few it seems someone changes the questions.

For example, from reading Alex Kershaw's book I've come to know "The Bedford Boys" who were slaughtered on Omaha Beach; their hometown shaved the top off a small mountain and built what became America's National D-Day Memorial. But as to the question of why their unit was chosen for that particular location, expected by planners to be a killing ground, I have no answer.

Over the years I've studied Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's scheme for Midway, scouring even source documents for any logical reason explaining how things went so wrong for his meticulously planned operation against the overwhelmingly outnumbered United States Navy.

There is no logical answer. And, thus, that exploration takes me beyond the realm of the physical into the metaphysical, every time.

For just as there was Joshua Chamberlain, a Bowdoin College professor, holding onto Little Round Top at the end of McPherson's line at Gettysburg, there was cruiser commander Ray Spruance relieving the hospitalized carrier Admiral Bill Halsey, at Midway. An improbable set of circumstances which turned the tide of history, and preserved us a nation.

Just as there was Dick Winters and "the band of brothers" taking out German guns decimating the U. S. 29th on Utah Beach, there was Joe Rochefort hunkered down in an underground Pearl Harbor intelligence bunker for months, cracking the Japanese command code leading up to the Battle of Coral Sea and Midway.

History rarely identifies the specific person in the crucial place at the critical moment responsible for making the monumental decision that decides the fate of an entire nation. Rarely has mankind been privy to record-keeping and eyewitness accounts of unsurpassed, almost indescribable, heroism. So very fortunate are we that those elements were present recording everything associated with Operation Overlord and the Battle of Midway.

History is replete with improbabilities.

Satellite technology recently facilitated discovery of 17 previously unknown pyramids of ancient Egypt. What stories will they tell?

Not many years ago infrared-imaging satellites revealed canals and temples long since covered by Central American jungles, leading to the discovery of thriving, previously unknown civilizations still in the earliest stages of contemporary study. What is yet to be revealed?

How is it that, from a fledgling nation of 13 tribes, a carpenter crucified at the height of the Roman Empire's power overcame the world? How could settlers comprising 13 fledgling colonies win independence at the height of the British Empire's power? What enabled America, a Christian nation, to triumph in a truly world war against two diabolical enemies who entered the conflict with superior technologies, tactical genius and strategic success on their side?

Oh, it's a tough sell arguing that God is on America's side, that America's victories were ordained by a higher power. Religious skeptics or purely objective scholars counter that the settling of this nation was done in anything but a Christian manner. Indigenous peoples were slaughtered and displaced, the building of America's infrastructure was accomplished with horrific mistreatment of immigrant workers, and an entire agricultural economy was built utilizing human slavery.

Still, Americans identify America as a Christian nation. And when she has strayed from those roots, history records that America has paid a dear price, indeed.

As confessed, I don't have all the answers. So, as June dawns, I'll again invest considerable time reflecting on America's improbable victory over Japan at Midway.

And I hope that you, too, will contemplate - far beyond Midway - how and why that came to be.

Nat Harwell is a Covington resident. His column appears Sundays.

 

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