Throughout my life—until Monday night, in fact—I believed the “D” in “D-Day” stood for “demarcation,” loosely defined as both a limit, and the setting of that limit. It made perfect sense that June 6, 1944, would be called “Demarcation Day,” for it was the day designated by the Allies as the moment in the story of the war—indeed, the story of humanity, given the enormity of that war and the nature of the enemy—that would separate everything that went before from everything that would follow.
Think about that. How many other single days in all of history were so portentous, so pivotal, that one way or the other, nothing was ever going to be the same again?
You could say, “All of them.” You could argue that every day in history contains some element that altered the course of events in ways that may have taken years, even centuries, to become manifest. You could say any and every circumstance from any and every day, did, or might have, or probably will, etch its everlasting influence onto the monument that records where we have been, where we are and where we are going.
The difference is, when dawn broke on D-Day, everyone involved—from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to the first GI grunt to catch the first German bullet and die with his momma’s smile in his mind—were aware in the moment that the shape the story would take from that day forward was up to them.
The demarcation men. It all stopped with them; it all started with them. And as they poured out of those landing craft and faced the beast eye to eye, flesh on steel, they had to know how fundamental they were. They might not have known what “demarcation” meant, but they knew what a line was. And that day, almost 4,500 of them died drawing it.
Monday night, I started thinking about what I might say of this 70th anniversary of that day—something that we haven’t heard over and over, every year as this date approaches. I expected it to be like looking for the one word in the dictionary no one has ever used before, probably an impossible task.
On the off chance that ”demarcation” might have a unexplored layer to its definition, or that it might be a unique approach to find who had chosen the term for the occasion, and why, I went digging into the word itself. First, I was surprised that it described not only the doing of something, but the thing done. It’s like a verb and the noun upon which the verb is acting, all rolled up into one concept.
I was pleased to imagine I could use this double dynamic to write how the assault on the Normandy beaches was both the action taken, and the result of the action. The beginning and the end, bound into one image; the snake of war eating its own tail. Clever, thought I, until I dug a little deeper.
It turns out the “D” in “D-Day” never stood for “demarcation.” The “D” is nothing more than a military designation. A general code assignment. There was also an “A-Day” and a “C-Day.” All these years, it has been a myth that “D” was for “demarcation,” possibly generated by another writer or reporter long past, who was trying to make poetry out of the carnage.
Many thought it meant “Disembarkment Day,” which also makes sense; others thought it was “Decimal Day,” which doesn’t. I wouldn’t be very surprised to learn still others thought it was for “Dying Day,” perfectly understandable since so many mothers and fathers would remember June 6 forever as the day their child was lost.
As for me, I will probably go on thinking of it as Demarcation Day, though rather than dwelling on the duality of the word—what was set free and what was contained, the yin and the yang of historical context—I will try to think mostly of those men. Those boys. The terror they faced. The bravery with which they faced it. And the world as it is because of what they did.