Remembering and honoring an event such as D-Day is a much larger task than I had ever imagined.
It has been about a week now since my return from the Normandy beaches with a group of UVA Alumni travelers (with Cavalier Travels) where so many American, British, Australian, Polish and even French troops had landed on June 6, 1944 and I have a very profound new appreciation for their service and sacrifices.
The operation was the largest amphibious invasion in history, consisting of an armada of ships numbering over 5,000 and a total of over 175,000 troops who stormed Omaha, Utah, Sword and Juno beaches covering a 50-mile long stretch of the Normandy coastline. These ships approached these shores on the morning of June 6th in miserable conditions, with rain, wind, and low visibility and were asked to do the seemingly impossible – to take these beaches back from the Germans and initiate the liberation of mainland Europe. As their amphibious barges dropped their gates and the men jumped into the murky Channel waters, they were immediately met with German gunfire. Losses began to accrue immediately and continue at an alarming rate throughout the assault.
To walk these beaches in similar conditions to the day of their landing (cloudy and rain) really helped us all envision what these soldiers had gone through. Utah beach was calm, almost silent as I walked along the sandy shoreline, imagining what it must have been like. Omaha was different, but only because of the driving rain and high tide. The new memorial sculpture jutted through the breaking waves almost seemed to be reaching out to the boys who had fallen on “that” beach on “that” day. Sword and Juno also invoked the same kinds of thoughts of the great losses and the valiant efforts of so many.
We began in magnificent Paris, visiting many historical spots long the way, learning about occupied Paris and the French Resistance during occupation. We then drove from Paris to Normandy, stopping along the way to Visit La Roche Guyon where Rommell set up his Atlantic Wall headquarters and a brief stop at Giverny, the home of Claude Monet for a tour of his home and colorful gardens. Once in Normandy, we visited the small town of St. Mere Eglise where the predawn 505th Airborne parachutists had dropped into the awaiting hands of German soldiers, many being killed before touching the ground. Others drowning in the nearby marshes due to a missed drop point. We walked across the embattled stretch of the Pegasus Bridge, a key target that the Allies needed to secure before the first men hit the nearby beaches that morning. We drove across terrain riddled with hedge groves thick enough to stop Sherman tanks in their tracks and where German gunneries had used these thick natural boundaries as camouflaged gun sites.
But one of the most rewarding and thought provoking experience we experienced on this tour was our lunch invitation to the Chateaux of Mr. and Mrs. Hausermann in Vierville-Sur-Mer. Mr. Hausermann had lived in this chateaux during the German occupation and shared with us his memories of those days while offering a lunch only to be found in the French countryside. His stories helped us all understand that the young German soldiers were just as anxious and fearful of their fate as the Allied armies. His memories truly helped us all realize that there really are no winners when it comes to wars of this scale.
Sixty-five years have passed but walking the American, British and German cemeteries made it feel like it was still fresh in many minds. Their struggles, their sacrifices and their service are all things that we can only remember in our own personal ways.
Academic Travel Abroad