American forces boasted an impressive repertoire of skills in World War II. Strategic and tactical bombing, submarine and fleet actions, large scale mechanized land operations—it was a formidable array. For my money, though, all of these pale next to the signal American achievement of the war: the amphibious landing.
Traditionally labeled the “most complex” of all military undertakings, amphibious ops require a huge amount of advanced planning. Weeks are better than days, but it’s probably better to have months. They also require material abundance. The more ships, men, planes, and guns, the better. Trying to do one ad-hoc or on a shoestring is asking for trouble. Just ask Winston Churchill about what happened at Gallipoli in 1915, or about Dieppe in 1942, for that matter. There are a 1001 things that can go wrong: either in the sea-borne approach, with its incredibly intricate dance of hundreds of ships, often in the dark; or during the landing itself, with squads of sea-sick grunts stumbling out of their landing craft and wading ashore under enemy fire; or in the ensuing few days, where a minor defeat of the landed force might lead to disaster, since there is no possibility of even a tactical retreat.
And that is precisely why we should remember the American military achievement in this area. By mid-1944, the U.S. military had come as close as humanly possible to “perfecting” amphibious operations. Meticulous planning by a vast bureaucracy of highly trained staff officers? Check. A thousand ship armada blanketing the ocean, with thousands of aircraft prowling overhead? Check and check. Enough firepower to turn any enemy defense into a parking lot? Check. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and marines willing to do their duty at the sharp end? Check. By 1944, no one did these things better; indeed, no one else did them at all. We’d cornered the market. Amphibious operations had become a new American way of war, and no enemy in this war ever managed to devise an effective defense against it.
And oh yes, one more thing: in June of 1944, we were actually doing two of these things. At the same time. On opposite sides of the globe. At virtually the same moment that American soldiers were landing in Normandy, our soldiers and marines were heading for their rendezvous with destiny at Saipan, accompanied by an invasion fleet nearly as large as the European one. It was an amazing—indeed, an unparalleled—show of military force, the moment that World War II became the American war, and the instant when we can say that the United States of America became the most powerful nation in history.
I don’t know if the twentieth was the “American century” or not, but 1944 was a hell of a year.