“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe
As I stood on one the cliffs, overlooking the beaches of Normandy, the wind rustled my hair and I was speechless. I walked around the little sandy path and peaked my head into a fortification before getting hit with a wave of claustrophobia. I proceeded to walk to the edge of the cliffs and stared out at the horizon. Gratitude, grief, and pride. If I had to pick three words to describe the invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on June 6th, 1944, that’s the three I would choose.
The summer after I graduated high school, I decided to take a World War II history trip with some fellow students and teachers from my school instead of partaking in the Senior Week festivities in the Outer Banks. We toured Britain and France, visiting landmarks and sites of interest related to WWII. In France we traveled to Rouen, Caen, Paris, and Omaha Beach near Colleville-sur-Mer. I remember stopping at a restaurant for lunch one day where we sampled regional cuisine, namely cider. While we horsed around and stuffed our faces with delicious cheeses the waitress remarked about how thankful the citizens of Normandy were and are for the Allied support and efforts in the region. American flags can be seen hanging from flagpoles all across the region. Many people namely associate Hitler and the Nazi regime with its brutal treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, but Hitler’s reach and terror extended to massive areas of Europe, including France. As we walked from the beaches up through a winding path that leads to the Normandy American Cemetery, I was overcome with gratitude. Gratitude for American service members who made the ultimate sacrifices on that cold, June morning in 1944.
A brief note about my personal connection to WWII. My mother and her family are Polish. My grandfather’s family bred horses in a small town outside of Warsaw and supplied them to the calvary regiments of the Polish Free Army. WWII has always meant many things to my family, namely, grief. My mother only half jokes that the only thing saving our family during Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the subsequent calculated extermination of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe, was the fact that they were Catholic. As a result, they were relocated multiple times across Poland, ending up in Gdansk or what is known as the Free City of Danzig. Many friends of my family were not as lucky.
Far from the frigid coast line along the Baltic Sea, Allied forces launched one of the largest and most coordinated military operations in history to combat the spread of Adolf Hitler’s Festung Europa. It is estimated that over 4,000 lives were lost during the invasion of Normandy. This number is not only disputed, but is constantly being updated. Walking through the Normandy American Cemetery, there is a stark reminder of the sacrifices that so many brave men made. I walked in silence and tried not to let my eyes well up with tears. Rows of white crosses and the occasional floral arrangement are there to serve as a reminder that not all who arrived on those beaches, made it back home again.
This one’s self-explanatory, but it needs to be mentioned. No one knows the sacrifices of service members more than their friends and family. It humbled me to be walking the very beaches that the brave men endured in the name of freedom. Some of them, being no older than 17-18 years old. That sense of pride is often indescribable.
Besides the sizeable airborne operation, the actual landings on the beaches were also preceded by a naval bombardment of the German coastal defenses. Named Operation Neptune, this was the naval component of Operation Overlord. Though it only lasted 40 minutes, the Navy succeeded in alerting the Germans that Allied forces had arrived. Many of the rounds fired landed behind Hitler’s coastal defenses and the Germans initially suffered little casualties. The battleships involved were the USS Arkansas, USS Texas, and the USS Nevada, while a host of other battleships and destroyers remained further back to provide support. Officially, the destroyers were only there to watch potential the invasion of the fleet from U-boats. Yet, with the crisis on Omaha reaching a critical point, they were ordered to provide close-in fire support for the troops stuck on the beach. Major General Leonard T. Gerow, at Omaha Beach, summed up the sentiment in a message to General Omar N. Bradley, Commander, U.S. First Army: “Thank God for the United States Navy!”
Have you visited the beaches of Normandy or the WWII Museum in France? Comment below and let us know about your experience.