Last week my wife and I were part of a crowd of over 10,000 people that assembled at the American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944 that began the slow arduous process of defeating Hitler’s fortress Europa. Our presence was part of a long sought after “bucket list goal” of visiting the Normandy beaches that I had hoped to achieve during an over forty-year career as a historian. Our visit to France, which also included Belgium and Luxemburg encompassed the battlefields of World War I and II, but the highlight for us was speaking with and watching the countless D- Day survivors (about 35) who were on the stage during the June 6th ceremonies.
(The spot where the Battle of the Bulge was launched by the Germans)
We spent over two weeks on our journey which began in Paris and Giverny visiting the home of French Impressionist, Claude Monet’s garden and numerous paintings. From that point on we transversed the battlefields of World War I with our historical guides Rich Yoder and Dave Wall of Military Historical Tours out of Woodbridge, Va. Though I was familiar with much of the history, our guides excellent commentary made what I had studied and taught come alive. We visited sites that included the Oie-Aise American Cemetery and Memorial where 6,012 Americans are buried who lost their lives in the vicinity in 1918, and Chateau-Thierry, scene of two critical battles in 1914 and 1918. The First, the Battle of the Marne was one of the opening campaigns of the war that blunted the German drive on Paris, and the second marked the turning point of the war as the American Expeditionary Force with 250,000 troops played key roles resulting in the death of 30,000 American soldiers. Next, was the June-July 1918 battlefield at Belleau Wood a “mecca” for US Marines whose victory possibly saved Paris and proved to the Germans America’s tenacity on the battlefield.
(Cliffs scaled by Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc)
World War II was next on our agenda as we traveled through the beautiful French countryside that once was a shell-scarred wasteland crisscrossed with French and German trench lines. After the Great War the French constructed a fortification known as the Maginot Line to provide a defense against any future German invasion. The problem was that it only ran up to the Belgium border and the Germans had no difficulty marching around it. One of the highlights of our visit was spending a few hours inside the Maginot Line at the Hackenberg Barracks and seeing how the 1000-man French garrison lived and prepared to offset any German penetration. From there we moved on to Batstone, Belgium which served as our focal point for our study of the Battle of the Bulge which was Hitler’s last attempt to defeat the allies as the Nazis engaged in a last-ditch effort pouring through the Ardennes Forest in December 1945. If you have watched the HBO film, The Band of Brothers you witnessed the tenaciousness and brutality of the fighting that finally resulted in the American victory led by General George S. Patton.
The highlight into our foray into World War II was the visit to Normandy. We were exposed to all the beaches that comprised the allied invasion that included over 23 million acres of material transported across the Atlantic Ocean, 6939 vessels, including over 4000 landing craft, over 200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft. The tour focused on Omaha Beach which suffered the greatest number of casualties on D-Day as compared to Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches that included our British and Canadian allies. For the men who took part, it seemed to be a “suicide mission” that included gliders, C-47 transports for paratroopers, and the armada that filled the English Channel.
We arrived at Omaha Beach and our first reaction was awe and emotion as we could not fathom how men landed on the beaches knowing full well that the odds of survival from German artillery and fields of fire were almost nil. Their bravery and fortitude can only be imagined until you see the cliffs. Pointe du Hoc was key as the 2nd Army Ranger battalion scaled the 100-foot cliffs to eliminate the guns that threatened Utah and Omaha Beach. Ste Mere Eglise was amazing as it was portrayed in the film “The Longest Day,” and is the site of the American paratrooper who hung from the church spire. The many museums were a history buff’s dream including the Airborne Forces Museum, the Batstone Barracks Museum among many. The historical reenactors were everywhere providing a realism that was hard to imagine. There was no aspect of the trip that could be improved, except perhaps more time at certain locations. As a historian, the lessons are clear, allies and a shared belief to fight tyranny are the key to success, and a sense of history that must be conveyed to succeeding generations are of the utmost importance.
(American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach, June 6, 2019)