Tuesday, September 20, 2011

COMPETENCE, COURAGE, SACRIFICE - My Reflection on Five Days in Europe

It is nearly impossible to summarize everything I learned on a dream history trip in three words, but the Visitor Center at the American Military Cemetery in Normandy did the job for me. The three words that open the museum serve as the theme for the incredible experience that follows. The cemetery itself incomparably ties the themes together. Reflecting on my five days traveling in England and France and walking in the footsteps of Operation Overlord, those three words dominate my memory - COMPETENCE, COURAGE, SACRIFICE.

Competence - (n) the ability to do something successfully or efficiently

Even though the entire operation began with the simple order of “OK, we’ll go”, Operation Overlord was anything but simple. In my visits to various museums and historical sites, I was constantly reminded of the incredible combination of planning, teamwork, military insight, and old fashioned ingenuity that went into the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in northern France. The Overlord Embroidery at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth provides a visual timeline of the overall operation, from the earliest stages of planning to the eventual liberation of France by the Allied Expeditionary Force. Exhibits at the Caen Memorial Museum and the museums at Utah and Omaha Beach present a detailed account of how the Allied countries amassed their awesome (and at times conflicting) abilities to organize and successfully carry out the largest military operation of human history, while keeping it relatively quiet through subterfuge and misdirection. The leadership of many key figures, especially General Dwight Eisenhower, is highlighted in countless locations, as are the remarkable abilities of the average American GI and his Allied comrades in arms. Considering the success the Allies had in securing the Normandy coast in such a short period of time, the term “competence” may in fact be an understatement in describing what the Allied forces achieved in 1944.

Courage - (n) the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain without fear

Can you imagine hurtling out of an airplane into the dark of night while anti-aircraft flak is riddling the air around you, only to land off course in or near a flooded field and trek through the night looking for your brothers in arms in an enemy occupied land? That’s the difficulty that the members of the Airborne paratroopers faced as they jumped to help secure villages and roads before the land invasion, clearly described at the Airborne Museum in beautiful Ste. Mere Eglise and at Pegasus Bridge near Ousitreham. Can you imagine crossing the choppy Channel in the early morning, braving seasickness and shelling, and facing a barrage of machine gun fire while wading ashore in overloaded packs, maneuvering through obstacles and mines to attack an enemy embedded in concrete atop a cliff? The men who stormed the beaches across Normandy all faced varying degrees of this danger, none more so than the American troops that landed on bloody Omaha Beach or the Army Rangers that scaled the sheer cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. Can you imagine a weary solider on a few hours’ rest marching along the old roads of Normandy, trying to conquer the interminable hedgerows and seemingly ever-present German war machine in order to free small towns from Nazi control? This peril resonated as I drove along the same roads, visiting some of the same towns and learning about the liberation at the Musee de la Bataille de Normandie in Bayeaux. Can you imagine living under the iron fist of an invading army with a ruthless leader, yet participating in in an active resistance movement through sabotage and defiance, knowing that the penalty, if caught, would be death? Many French nationals boldly faced this challenge with pride, exhibited from the villages of Normandy to the streets of Paris. The collective courage that all of the Allies exhibited in the liberation of France was palpable at every location of my journey, and collectively makes the greatest story of “The Longest Day”.

Sacrifice (n) an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy

As I learned at the Imperial War Museum in London and throughout Normandy, the civilians of the Allied countries sacrificed a great deal. They rationed their food and household products while churning out a war machine that could not be stopped, all the while living in a state of fear, or in many cases in Europe, direct peril from the bombs of the German Luftwaffe or arms of the Nazi army. The men and women that gave to the war effort on the home front cannot be overlooked, and their sacrifice must be remembered. However, there is no greater sacrifice that must be honored than the ultimate price paid by those who perished so that others could remain free. They came from all across America, England, Canada, France, and other Allied nations, from all walks of life, from many ethnic backgrounds, to give their service for something more important and worthy – the freedom of the people of Europe. The sacrifice of these men and women was ever present in each location on my journey, but nowhere more than at the American Cemetery. The walk along the white Latin crosses and Stars of David on the coast of Normandy, overlooking the English Channel that they crossed, is an encounter that chills me still. Over 9,000 Americans rest on this pacific cliff in Colleville-sur-Mer, spending eternity far away from their own homes in a land they fought to make free. It is a place I will remember with awe and reverence, and the most important single experience of my trip.

I plan to use my trip to help my students gain a better understanding of the competence, courage, and sacrifice of the United States and Allied forces in the liberation of France and World War II, and I look forward to sharing my journey in detail with the USM community on an evening in April. On a personal note, I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to Charlie Wright for providing the opportunity of a lifetime, Pam Nosbusch and Francine Eppelsheimer for their support and encouragement, and my wife Cathy and children for supporting my journey.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Walking Tour of WWII Paris - a great way to see the city

My final activity of my trip was a World War II walk of Paris. Run by Getaway Tours, this 2+ hour experience was sensational, and I highly encourage anyone who visits Paris to take advantage of it – especially if the tour is led by Gil, my guide. As opposed to the locations and museums of Normandy that I visited, Paris does not contain a lot of signage for WWII history, so the walk is a must. Not only did I see a lot of Paris in a short time, but I also learned a great deal about the Nazi occupation, life for Parisians during the war, the French Resistance, and the Battle for Paris and liberation in August 1944. In addition, I found out tidbits of French history, French culture, Paris lore, architecture, and more.

I won’t give you my notes of the whole tour – you can check out a lot of it on video. However, here were some of the highlights:


*The Resistance started immediately, and a lot the push for resistance were from communist groups who wanted to ascend to power. Other groups aligned with Charles de Gaulle
*The resistance had three major goals - gather intelligence for the Allies (cool spy stuff), sabotage, and help soldiers to get back once behind enemy lines
*There were a ton of hiding aces in Paris to hep the Resistance
*The resistance would rarely (if every) try to assassinate Nazi's due to retribution
*An uprising was not expected in Paris, and the Nazis that lived there had a pretty easy life - no fighting, good food, wine and lodging
*Life under occupation was incredibly difficult for the French - lack of supplies, ration cards, living conditions - but they kept their French "way of life" as much as they could
*Dietrich Von Choltitz disobeyed Hitler's "scorched earth" policy and order to destroy Paris - a great story (and part of "Is Paris Burning?")




Gil (the guide) did a fantastic job of storytelling, combining historical fact with the personal emotions of both the French and the Germans. As I walked away from the tour, I made a mental list of the topics that I want to research more (Von Chovlitz, the resistance, the black market, Nazi life in Paris, Deportation, DeGaulle, Louis XIV) and realized that just by raising my curiosity, it was a great experience. I was also incredible jealous of how cool Gil’s job is – walking around a beautiful city, talking history and telling stories, meeting people from all over the world. I always wanted to be a historical tour guide (not surprising, considering that I love the microphone), so maybe this will give me some ideas for a new career if the teaching gig doesn’t work out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Competence – Courage – Sacrifice


It’s really difficult to put into words my experience(s) at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer - that's why this post is out or chronological order. As I planned the whole trip, it was the one place I wanted to see more than any other – possible the one place in the world I wanted to see more than any other. I visited the cemetery and visitor’s center twice – once on a crowded Sunday afternoon, again on a quiet Monday morning – and didn’t want to leave each time. The experience was overwhelming, with the combination of an incredible geographical setting, the best museum dedicated to D-Day that I visited, the dichotomy of crowded and empty, the beauty of the memorial and cemetery itself, and the overarching tribute paid to the Americans that rest there. It’s why I came to France, but more than that, it’s a major reason why I teach history.

The visitor center sets the stage for an incomparable experience. Three words dominate the lobby – Competence – Courage – Sacrifice – and the rest of the cemetery ties together those themes to tell the story of the war, the cemetery, and the men (and four women) who are laid to rest there. A tableau of the D-Day landings at the base of an endless pool overlooks the Channel. The videos and exhibits serve as both historical content and tribute, using the words of the people involved. After walking through the exhibits, the hallway where names of fallen soldiers are read hits hard, especially when you read the stories in the very sparsely decorated circular room, centered around the symbol of a battlefield death – a rifle in a ground of stones with a helmet atop of it. Exiting the center, you see a somber quote from General Mark Clark of the American Battle Monuments Commission – “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was out only conquest: all we asked was for enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead”.






The path leading out of the center brings visitors to the cliffs of Colleville, with an unbeatable view of Omaha Beach and the English Channel. Another tableau is situated in a viewing platform directly on the cliff, in between two entries to a stairway and path that takes those who chose to go down (and then back up) to the sands of Omaha. I didn’t have enough time to go down on my first visit, but in the morning, I made descended the steps alone for some reflection – on the places I had seen, what I have read and viewed, how I teach, and much more. Stepping foot on the beach in this location is much different than the other locations of Omaha I had already been, as I was alone with my camera and water bottle to collect sand from the hallowed ground. Looking up from the beach, it’s striking to think of the physical challenge the men had in taking the cliffs – not even to consider the German obstacles, mines, and munitions. Competence, courage and sacrifice rang in my head. It’s also both heartbreaking and heartwarming to think that thousands of American soldiers are buried just above, all of which paid the ultimate price in a place thousands of miles from their home. If I had to single out one spot on my entire trip that I will always remember, it is surely there.




The cemetery itself is overpowering. While exactly the same in purpose as the awesome Arlington, this cemetery is different in presentation, with over nine thousand Latin crosses and Stars of David presented with military precision and uniformity. As you wade through the sea of green and white, you see the names and ranks of men from all over the country. Sets of brothers are there, as is a father and son, buried next to each other. No single grave stands out – there are no special stones, no separate plots for dignitaries – and the only major difference is the gold lettering of Medal of Honor winners.


The memorial at the one end of the cemetery is imposing - and informative. One two sides are immense maps and historical narrative, one of the D-day landings and battle for Normandy, the other of the entire European campaign. Those two maps give the geographical narrative of the war. In the center of the memorial is a beautiful statue, “Spirit of the American Youth”, surrounded by the first line of the Battle Hymn. Behind the statue and walls is a semicircle of over 1,500 names of the missing in action from the war, some since identified.





It’s both easy and difficult to express in words the impact of the visit, both while I was there and as I look at the pictures and video. It’s striking that these Americans are buried so far away from their homes, from their loved ones, from their country. But as a mother in a documentary stated, they chose to bury their son at Normandy, thousands of miles away, because that’s where he lost his life in order for others to regain and keep their freedom.

The Jewel of Europe – especially for a WWII history guy

I was excited to explore Paris to see the most visited city on the continent, as I had never been there before. I planned on making it a part WWII visit and part “see the stuff you gotta see in one day visit”, and little did I realize how the two would combine. The major locations I visited all have interesting stories about or connections to World War II – no surprise, since the city was occupied by Germans since the fall of France in 1940 until liberation in August of 1944.

The Eiffel Tower, one of the most recognized landmarks in the entire world, looked a little different during much of the war, as a huge Nazi flag hung from it for four years. I found out that just before the Nazis came in to Paris (and Hitler took the famous picture in front of the tower), parts mysteriously disappeared from the hydraulic pumps that operate the lifts. So, Hitler and the Germans had to take the stairs – a small victory for the French underground. Once the city was liberated, those parts suddenly reappeared and the lifts were once again operational. Hitler though about demolishing the tower and using the steel for military purposes I will have to find out what stopped him from doing so.


The Arc de Trioumphe was a central location in the grand parade of Charles DeGaulle when he re-entered Paris on August 26th. He began at the site by relighting to flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and then led the walk (not march) down Champs-Ellysses, through the Triumphal Way.



In the Louvre, many of the great works of art were grabbed and hidden before the Nazis could get a hold of them. It was also the location where Hitler kept one of his great souveneirs of the war – the Bayeux Tapestry, which (in his mind) demonstrated that he was similar to William the Conquerer.

Notre Dame (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen) is also symbolic of the French resistance. Most of the incredible stained glass windows were taken out before occupation so they would not be damaged and replaced with plate glass. Also, a huge mass was celebrated there on Liberation Day, one of the largest ever attended at the cathedral.






I could describe the sites in more detail, but I know they are fairly well known. I think it’s important for me to put them into historical detail, partially to remember that Paris, France, and the world are very fortunate that these amazing sites survived the war, unlike many other parts of Northern France, Germany, England, and other European locations.

I didn’t get to visit two specific sites on my list – Musee du l’Armee at Invalides (I had the closing time wrong and couldn’t go the next morning) and the Deportation Memorial itself (line was too long on our tour). While I was disappointed (in myself) for not seeing them, it just gives me another reason to come back to Paris – but with Cathy.

Bayeux Museum, Cemetery, and Cathedral

The Musee de la Bataille de Normandie (Battle of Normandy Museum) in Bayeux was a perfect place to end my time after seeing the beaches and D-Day spots for three days, simply because it focused primarily on what happened after the D-Day invasions as the Allies slowly but successfully headed inland and liberated northern France and eventually Paris on their way to Berlin. It’s a part of the war that I have not read much about, even in preparation for the trip, but the museum will lead to me to further investigation (and maybe another grant?). There is no photography in the museum, but I stole a few shots just to show what it looked like and to add some historical tidbits to my collection. I learned a great deal about Charles de Gaulle (more on him in Paris) and the detailed role in the Free French Movement. He is quite a popular figure in Bayeux, as people in the underground listened to him secretly on the BBC during the war and he gave his first major speech there after the D-Day invasion. The museum also clearly explained the challenges the Allies faced as they moved to secure the port of Cherbourg and then spread to St. Lo and Caen in June and July of 1944. One of the major obstacles was the hedgerow system on dividing fields in Normandy and Brittany, which I saw first hand – what seems like a simple concept of a ditch and shrubs caused major difficulty for troops, as Germans turned them into trenches and sniper locations and many of the fields were nearly impassable. The museum has a great collection of military machinery, including a Crocodile tank – flame thrower!





A short walk from the Museum took me to British War Cemetery and Bayeux War Memorial – my third cemetery of the day. As you can see from the pictures, it appears more like the American military cemeteries we are used to than the German one I saw in La Cambe.





Over 20,000 British soldiers are interred in the cemetery, along with a number of other Allies that fought and died in France. The markers for the British soldiers are all the same shape, but they carry different symbols and also a small phrase or memo on the bottom of each – a nice touch for families, in my mind. The other Allies (Polish, Czech, Russian) buried there have different shaped headstones. The cemetery is beautiful – pristine, as military cemeteries should be. I read the poem ""At the British War Cemetery" by Charles Causely, who was moved to write his thoughts on his first visit. As I sat on a bench, and the words resonated, especially after all of my experiences of the previous three days.

I walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red earth away.

‘I am Christ’s boy’, I cried, ‘I bear
In iron hands the bread, the fishes.
I hang with honey and with rose
This tidy wreck of all your wishes.

‘On your geometry of sleep
The chestnut and the fir-tree fly,
And lavender and marguerite
Forge with their flowers an English sky.

‘Turn now toward the belling town
Your jigsaws of impossible bone,
And rising, read your rank of snow
Accurate as death upon the stone.’

About your easy heads my prayers
I said with syllables of clay,
‘What gift,’ I asked, ‘shall I bring now
Before I weep and walk away?’

Take, they replied, the oak and laurel,
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give.


Across from the cemetery, the Bayeux War Memorial pays tribute to the British soldiers that do not have a final resting place after losing their lives in WWII. Each name is etched in the marble fa├žade of the memorial, making sure they are remembered and that loved ones do have a place to come to and visit.



I was also able to make a quick trip to the Bayeux Cathedral, a stunning feat of architecture and art. The cathedral was started in the 11th century in the Norman style and then was rebuilt in the 1200s in the gothic style (after some civil wars with the sons of William the Conquerer). It was quite busy when I visited, but I wasn’t surprised, since it was the Day of the Assumption, and the cathedral is dedicated to Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry (which I found out is technically not a tapestry, since it is woven and not embroidered).

Bayeux itself is a gorgeous small town that serves as a great home location to visit the major sites of Normandy and also to stroll the streets of a old French village. It survived World War II unscathed, not falling to bombing or battle, and is a place that I would love to visit again.

Monday, August 15, 2011

“The Key to the Liberation of Europe”

The small town of Arromanches is known in the D-Day world for one major (and I mean major) part of the invasion and liberation of Normandy – Port Winston. When the Allies planned to attack the beaches and gained a beachhead, they knew it was essential to create artificial ports to allow for continuous transport of men, machine, and material to France. Since the major ports of Cherbourg and Antwerp were still in German hands, the lack of a port would make the invasion all for naught. Perhapts that’s why the plaque at the Musee du Debarquement (Landing Museum) prominently states that Port Winston (named for Churchill) was “The Key to the Liberation of Europe”.

How did the Allied engineers do it? Ingenuity, old ships, and a whole lot of steel and concrete. Multiple retired naval craft and huge hollow concrete barriers were towed across the channel and sunk parallel to the coast to create a breakwater (think about the breakwater around the port in downtown Milwaukee). Huge steel bridges were transported in and floated on pontoons, allowing vehicles large and small to drive onto the beach and head inland to both battle the Germans and create landing strips and causeways for more movement.

The concrete barriers were nicknamed “mulberries”, turning the two ports (one further west on Omaha) into Mulberry Harbors. The Omaha Beach harbor was destroyed in huge storm two weeks after D-Day, but the one at Arromanches continued to be essential to Allied success until the war moved to the East and Antwerp was liberated. Those harbors were an amazing feat of engineering, and the historic images are awesome. At the site today, you can still see some of the phoenix caissons off the coast – a pretty cool sight.






Longues Battery

I wasn’t originally planning on stopping here, but I took a chance when I saw the sign and spent twenty minutes walking amongst some major bunkers in the middle of farmland just off the coast at Longues su Mer. The size of the bunkers and surviving guns is massive – considering how many the Wehrmarcht had along the coast, the amount of concrete is unfathomable. These four batteries were a good quarter mile from the actual coast, not hanging on the edge of the cliffs like others I have seen in the past two days. Whatever the case, the Germans did have an amazing amount of firepower along the coast – but not enough against the Allies.