Normandy 2014 [Updated]

The 70th anniversary of D-Day has rightfully drawn a great deal of attention. Coincidentally, my youngest child, a high school junior, went on a school trip to England and France over spring break, in March, with members of her European history class. (When I was in high school we went on a school trip, too; as I recall, it was an afternoon in Sioux Falls.) One of the highlights of the trip was the day the group spent in Normandy, touring the beaches and other sites associated with D-Day.

The kids were struck by how beautiful the scene is. Click to enlarge:

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It was low tide, and they walked on Omaha Beach:

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On this trip, we benefited from modern technology. Our daughter texted us frequently, and the teachers who chaperoned the trip maintained a Twitter feed. They also uploaded lots of photos to Shutterfly, and every evening one of the teachers sent parents an email describing the day’s events. After the visit to the Normandy beaches, he wrote:

Today was a day I personally will remember the rest of my life….The first stop of the morning was at Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. … As we were walking up to the overlooks from above where the Germans had been positioned waiting for the Allied Forces this group quickly sensed what they were witnessing. Without an adult saying one word this normally smiling, laughing and energetic group quickly became quiet and reflective. For the next hour we walked the beach, visited the grave sites and paused at the reflecting pool and the monuments. The enormity of American lives lost on D-Day started to become real when looking at gravestones that seemed to go on forever and then it was pointed out that this actually represented just about 9,000 or 1/3 of the American lives lost in less than one year.

This photo is, I believe, taken from La Pointe Du Hoc:

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The kids wandered around inside abandoned German fortifications:

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Their teacher wrote:

Our next stop on the day was at La Pointe Du Hoc which was about 8 km away and home to a large and powerful German fortress that sat high atop cliffs that made reaching them by sea nearly impossible. … If the Allied forces were to start pushing back this fortress was an important conquest. Impossible to reach by boat alone the U.S. Generals called on the Army Rangers to scale the 120 foot cliffs despite slippery conditions, heavy water-logged ropes from the sea and heavy enemy fire from above. In addition the Royal Air Force had heavily bombed the area in advance which made the terrain extremely dangerous to navigate as well as greatly reduced the stability of the cliffs they were attempting to climb. Of the approximately 225 Rangers who scaled the wall, 135 paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. Pointe Du Hoc provides some beautiful views from the top of the cliffs, but most impressively has been preserved as a total hands on memorial. Anyone making the trip can go in bunkers, explore the huge depressions in ground from the bombs and walk through the mostly heavily damaged “pill boxes” that were used as huge artillery shelters for up to 20 soldiers. To walk this heavily damaged land felt extremely real nearly 70 years later.

The cemetery was a profound experience for all of the kids:

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It was striking to me that, coming home from a trip that included the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, among much more, the most moving experience for my daughter and her friends was their visit to the beaches of Normandy. That pivotal event, the D-Day invasion, has not faded from the memories of Americans; not yet, anyway.

UPDATE: Our friend Mark Arnold writes:

My sons and I visited the landing beaches four years ago and it made a powerful impression. For starters, the sheer size of the operation is amazing. From the left end of Sword to the right end of Utah, it’s at least 50 miles as the crow flies. The American cemetery atop the bluffs at Omaha is special. And the French in Normandy do not have any anti-American sentiments; quite the contrary, they are most grateful for the sacrifices made 70 years ago.

I suspect that visit was one reason my older son decided to become a Marine. He is now a first lieutenant and a platoon commander, responsible for himself and the 41 men under his command.

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