Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy, France, June...

Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy, France, June 6, 1944, during World War II in this photo from the National Archives. Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty/Photo 12

This guest essay reflects the views of Jason Halloren, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, past deputy commandant of West Point, and trustee of the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage.

On a hill not far from the D-Day beaches of Normandy in France are memorial stones that mark the deaths of two Long Islanders who became casualties on June 6, 1944. They were part of an amphibious assault by 160,000 Allied troops who came ashore under murderous fire that day to confront a Nazi scourge that, 80 years later, continues to cast a shadow on humanity. These two Long Islanders are among the 2,501 Americans who would die that day.

Research reveals scant details about who they were, their families, or what they thought about a conflict that would define the world for generations to come.

American soldiers and supplies arrive on the shore of the...

American soldiers and supplies arrive on the shore of the French coast of German-occupied Normandy during the Allied D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944 in World War II.  Credit: AP

We do know that Private Charles T. Byrnes of Elmont was with the 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, and Private First Class Sidney G. Dudgeon was from Oyster Bay, assigned to the 29th Field Artillery Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. Byrnes was about 19 years old. Dudgeon, on the other hand, was 31, with a daughter at home he would never know. Eighty years later, he is still listed as missing in action.

Research suggests that Byrnes worked at Arlom Motors in Hempstead, while Dudgeon, known as “Dutch,” worked at Nassau Brick in Farmingdale before enlisting.

They were but two of the thousands of Long Islanders who wore the uniform following our nation’s entry into World War II, and who, together with a generation of that era, created an America we now take for granted. By doing so, we are selling short the courage, valor, and sacrifice of those who went ashore at Normandy, as well as those who confronted Imperial Japan in the Pacific.

American D-Day veterans gather for a ceremony on Omaha Beach,...

American D-Day veterans gather for a ceremony on Omaha Beach, Tuesday, in Normandy, France. Credit: AP/Jeremias Gonzalez

As we observe the 80th anniversary of D-Day this week, we need to pause and admit that our collective understanding of World War II is becoming ever more faint. It is a precarious position because the nation that forgets its past endangers its future. Unfortunately, this trend has been underway for some time.

At the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a national survey of college students by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “Americans have a serious case of historical amnesia when it comes to knowledge of D-Day.” The group's report suggested that a quarter of those asked didn’t know that D-Day occurred during World War II,  and less than 50% knew that Franklin Roosevelt was president during World War II. One suspects these findings have not improved over time.

One cannot separate World War II from the Holocaust, where hatred and antisemitism were distilled into industrialized mass murder by the Nazis. Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents, has repeatedly warned that the recent spike in antisemitism is proof that current Holocaust instruction is insufficient, as is teaching on World War II as a whole. Failing to heed previous lessons only lends itself to witnessing atrocities that we fought so desperately to stop.

Those Normandy gravestones that mark our American dead are mute, yet they still speak to us 80 years later. We have an obligation to remember not just their sacrifice, but why they committed themselves to being the liberating force of freedom, regardless of the cost. Only in that measure can we truly honor this solemn anniversary.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jason Halloren, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, past deputy commandant of West Point, and trustee of the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage.

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