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.