A few weeks ago, I joined the ranks of 18 Yale Alumni for what we subsequently described as a pilgrimage. We started our voyage in London, retracing the steps taken by so many some 65 years ago as they embarked in England and crossed the frigid waters of the English Channel, only to land in the turbulent cold waters of the hard sandy beaches of Normandy. From the Cabinet War Rooms and adjoining Churchill Museum, to Bletchley Park, Southwick House, and the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, we learned of Churchill, Britain at War, and the intricate preparations for what remains today the largest and most successful beach landing in history.
From Portsmouth we then boarded a ferry and crossed the English Channel. Though our crossing was significantly more comfortable than that of “the boys” on the night of June 5th and the early hours of June 6th 1944, we none-the-less carried with us the weight of their journey.
In Normandy, we viewed the colorful stained glass windows in the small town church of Sainte Mère Eglise honoring members of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions who parachuted into town in the night of June 5, and explored the adjoining Paratrooper Museum. We walked the hallowed sand at Utah Beach and Omaha Beach where many American lives were lost and decisive beach-heads secured, and viewed the towering cliffs scaled by intrepid Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. We paid our respects at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and at the British Cemetery in Bayeux. We were reminded that war affects all sides of the conflict, and that the soldiers our young forces were fighting against were no less boys, and no less human than our own as we walked the grounds of the German cemetery at La Cambe. We gained knowledge and perspective regarding the Mulberry harbors at Arromanches (and all the material and troops which came through the artificial port) and the continued campaign that was the battle of Normandy which raged on for weeks after the June 6th landings. We were challenged along the way to respect those who died, respect those who fought, yet also to resist the temptation of glorifying war…
Among the many highlights of the trip – three stand out for me. The first, in England, at Bletchley Park. One of our travelers had done research prior to the trip and had discovered that among the 30,000 men and women who worked tirelessly to decipher the Enigma Code, 300 were Americans. And among those 300 Americans were 6 “Yalies.” As a result of this discovery, a plaque was made and as we started our visit at Bletchley we had the honor of presenting it to the Bletchley Trust, commemorating the work, sacrifice and commitment of those 6 men and the part they played in gathering intelligence which shortened the war and saved lives.
The second occurred in Normandy, on Omaha Beach. We were approached by an older woman who asked us if we were Americans. When we responded affirmatively, she said “I’m here with my husband. He is a Scott, but he served with the Americans and landed here. This is his first time back. Can you please come speak with him?” It was an incredibly touching act and many were moved both by what this veteran had to share, and by his wife’s seeking us out. Our group thanked him for his sacrifice and courage.
And finally, for me personally – Sainte Mère Eglise. Our first official stop in Normandy was Sainte Mère Eglise. As we pulled into the town square, we were surprised to see it was market day. Having grown up in Normandy, I was thrilled by the unexpected treat of walking through this small market, with all its familiar colors, sounds, smells and yes – tastes! My soul was fed, my spirits reborn! Some of our travelers purchased aged Calvados and shared the delicious treat with the rest of the group at the end of a long, emotion-filled day. How perfect.
Senior Tour Manager