Experiencing Normandy: The 70th Anniversary of D-Day

(Disclaimer: Make sure to click on the photos to enlarge!)

I still have a few more stories to tell from my Indonesian adventure, but in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day today, I wanted to share my experience in Normandy, France on a tour of the region’s historically significant locations from World War 2. This momentous occasion has such important implications for all of humankind, and I only hope I can do it justice.

Now, as someone who can’t remember when the War of 1812 took place, or how long the 100 Years’ War lasted (I know, I know, it was longer than 100 years…), it’s safe to say that I am not a history buff. Normandy is certainly a place steeped in history, and I learned a great deal from touring the area. However, that’s not what this post is about. I’m not going to parrot facts to you. I want to show you how Normandy made me feel.

The trip to Normandy was part of an adventure in France to celebrate Zach’s grandfather’s 70th birthday. George is what you would call a history buff. In fact, I’m pretty sure there is a picture of him in the dictionary next to the entry for “history buff.” He is fascinated by World War 2, and so this trip was scheduled to coincide with the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We didn’t want to brave the thousands of veterans and visitors on June 6th itself, so we stopped in a little early, and had the place all to ourselves (almost).

In preparation for the festivities, everyone was hard at work making sure everything was in tip top shape for the arrival of the “greatest generation.” And it had to be perfect, because this would likely be the last visit for many of these brave veterans, many of whom are now in their 90s.

 

To get the most of our visit, we decided to take a guided tour. Our guide was a friendly, sarcastic Brit (is there any other kind of Brit?) named Andy.

While many D-Day tours consist of a dramatic recounting of the heroic battles, blow by blow, Andy took a different approach. When he wasn’t cracking a joke, he was sincere, down-to-earth, and realistic about the tragic but necessary events of the war.

Considering the bravery of the American and British forces during World War 2, it makes sense that many of the French people – especially those in Normandy – regard us with gratitude and respect. Andy told us countless stories of  French men and women coming up to hug Americans on his tours, overwhelmed with emotion and singing our praises. One can’t help but feel a sense of pride when thinking about what our support in the liberation effort meant to the people of Normandy.

But it wasn’t all as rosy as the history books will have us believe. The most eye-opening portion of the tour was our stop at a tiny museum – one even Rick Steves doesn’t know about – owned by a Frenchman named Jacquie, who was born just after the war had ended.

He is pushing 70, but he’s still a ladies man, through and through.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Holmes.

The museum is located in the house in which he spent his childhood. It is filled with hundreds of artifacts from the war – uniforms (both German and French), coins from the 1940s, a gas mask, a hand-engraved dagger that depicted Hitler, cartoons and propaganda (both in support of and against Hitler), an authentic air raid siren, and more. There was even an anti-Nazi chess set with a swastika in place of the Bishop, which is the piece that the French call ‘le fou,’ or ‘crazy.’

The house also happened to be the headquarters for several German officers during the war. When Jacquie peeled away the wallpaper in the living room, paintings depicting the German soldiers were revealed. As Andy pointed out, these were not depictions of monsters, or villains. These were merely men trying to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

While historians write about the Nazi occupation as a dark and terrible time in French history, not all of the French felt this way. After several long years of living with these German soldiers, many French citizens were even on friendly terms with their so-called enemies. One French woman famously attacked the American soldiers as they parachuted in to liberate Normandy, because she was afraid that they would kill her German lover.

Hearing these stories, in contrast to the more commonly told tales, created a very strong sense of cognitive dissonance. As we celebrate this 70th anniversary of a day that ended years of oppression and genocide, we should also mourn the loss of so many innocent lives. Many Nazi officers and soldiers were not heartless and evil, as actors portray them in Hollywood films. Many of them were swept up in Hitler’s propaganda because they desperately wanted a way to feed their families. As the war dragged on, they simply wanted to return home to those families in Germany.

These are people we can relate to. What parent doesn’t want to feed their family? What person doesn’t want to find a way to make it through a tough time? There is no argument that there were countless despicable acts committed during World War 2. No one can defend the heartless genocide that took place under Hitler’s command.

But to say that every soldier in the Nazi army gleefully executed Jews is also a strong overstatement. When Andy asked Jacquie if he believed the Germans were evil, he answered with a resounding “no.”

***

A tour of Normandy is not complete without visits to Utah and Omaha beaches.

Walking on the sand, in the place where thousands of American soldiers stormed ashore 70 years ago was nothing short of surreal. Knowing that hundreds of my countrymen died on that very beach, I was awash with emotion.

I was proud that our involvement helped to end a reign of tyranny that could have otherwise spread indefinitely.

I was heartbroken to think that the men who died on these beaches were cut down before they reached their prime. Many of them were not yet as old as I am today. They were ripped away from their families and thrust into a brutal war they were not prepared for.

Many of the ones who did make it home struggled with PTSD, alcoholism, poverty and injury. But many would say that they would go through it all again to defend their country and the innocent men and women in Europe who did not deserve to be oppressed and persecuted.

As a veteran himself, George seemed to be especially affected by the magnitude of walking where his fellow servicemen once did.

We took a great deal of time to reflect on what we saw and felt, and Andy put some of it into tactical perspective when we stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two beaches.

The Germans fortified this point with bunkers and a wall of artillery. It made up part of the “Atlantic Wall,” and the Germans saw it as their stronghold on the coast of Normandy.

They were, of course, mistaken, and now what remains of the once formidable barrier is merely rubble and craters left by bomb explosions during the Allied invasion.

It was unbelievable to think that hundreds of Army Rangers scaled the cliffs to undermine the German position, ultimately leading to the demise of the Nazi forces.

On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Ronald and Nancy Reagan visited this historic spot to deliver an address to hundreds of veterans and world leaders. They then toured the very bunkers where German soldiers resided during the war.

To round out the very emotional day, we made one final stop: the American cemetery.

The visitor center lauds the bravery of American soldiers during D-Day. The most touching memorial was the most simple – an M1 Garand rifle stands alone in a glass case. Atop it sits a helmet. A helmet whose soldier left this world too soon. From the glass roof, beams of light illuminate the space, as if a higher power is looking down on the scene, for better or for worse.

The cemetery itself overlooks Omaha Beach. Thousands of headstones in neat rows represent the lives lost in the war.

9,387 Americans are buried here.

Christians. Jews.

People may discriminate, but war does not.

A war is not glorious. It is not grand. When we honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we do not celebrate the brutal fighting.

We celebrate the brave men and women who risked their lives – in battle or in service – for a cause. If it were not for them, who knows where the world might be today. These people did not choose to start this war. Many of them did not even choose to fight in this war. But they did so bravely, and with honor. So that we could live in a free world.

And now, it is our duty to honor their memory by ensuring that the world they fought to preserve lives on. Our veterans did not fight for a world where men and women hate, discriminate, mutilate, or destroy. They fought to preserve a world with equality, justice, love, and peace. So today and every day, I hope that we can all remember why war has taken millions of lives during the history of humankind. And work to ensure that it doesn’t take any more.

“If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest, it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: all we asked…was enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead.” — General Mark W. Clark, Chairman, American Battle Monuments Commission.

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4 Comments

  1. Derek

    Insightful piece!
    You make an excellent point that war is not glorious nor grand, but sometimes necessary when combatting true evil. This evilness is usually only emanated by handful of inhumane people who deceitfully manage to garner the support of the majority by disguising their real purpose and despicable character. The buttons they push could be anything from national pride to national salvation. The insidiousness of this evil is revealed by the indoctrination of children and youth who then become witnesses against their family members for refusing to believe the propaganda. The end result is their execution. Pol Pot did this and also utilized fear to turn many souls, in a nation of gentle people, into homicidal maniacs. We need to remember those who bravely fought this evil either from within or without. The number of Allied lives lost in this long battle should never be forgotten. The lives of the Jewish population taken by heinous acts will always be remembered. Also the German military’s failed attempt to assassinate Hitler resulted in the execution of thousands of citizens deemed to be traitors. Whether this attempt was motivated by a desire to save their country or disgust for Nazi war crimes, its success would have saved many lives, both military and civilian.

    Reply
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