Anyone who knows me knows I love history. It's what I like to watch; it's what I choose to read. I go through phases, immerse myself in a specific era and learn as much as possible about the subject before moving on to the next topic that captures my interest - Ancient Greece, Roman legions and emperors, The Civil War, World War One, Vietnam - the list goes on. The one subject I always go back to and can never learn enough about is WWII.
It started in high school doing research papers for history class. I chose D-Day as my subject. It captured me like nothing else ever had. Over the last 20 years I've read more books about the subject than anything else. I don't idolize celebrities or athletes. Rather, I appreciate those who are able to do things I'm not sure I would have the strength to do.
I used to sit and imagine how it would feel to be waiting to come ashore on a landing craft as bullets zipped overhead, or getting ready to parachute into enemy territory in the middle of the night not knowing what's waiting on the ground. I often wonder how I would react if it were me - would I have the courage to do what needed to be done, or would I freeze up, too terrified to move? We all like to think we charge straight ahead, head first into danger, but we don't know until we live it.
It has always been a dream of mine to visit these places I've learned so much about. We've seen so many movies, documentaries and tv shows that we overlook the fact that these are real places. The black and white footage makes it seem so distant. The actors we know from other roles make it seem so safe. But these are actual places - places where families live and farm the land and children go to school, places that become so much more because of what has happened there - amazing places that take your breath away and make you just stand quietly and look.
We start our tour by visiting the site of the battle of La Fiere and the bridge over the Merderet river. We are lucky to know quite a few current and former members of the 82nd Airborne Division, and this is one of the places their predecessors, along with the 101st, fought. I think of them.
It has been raining since we arrived in France weeks ago, the fields are flooded like they were back then. It's raining now, and it adds a dreariness you can feel. It's fitting we start here because this is where the first troops landed to begin an invasion that was anything but a sure thing. We sometimes forget the uncertainty they faced. We know how the story ends, but they sure didn't.
We visit two towns famous for their churches and the battles they saw, Sainte-Mère-Église and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. Both places lay claim to being the first town recaptured during the invasion; Sainte-Mère-Église was the first town captured by airborne troops, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont was the first captured by seaborne troops (with support from the airborne divisions). Both these tiny little towns in the countryside help me realize, while these were enormous operations with tens of thousands of men, the battle was won by individual people. Both towns are strewn with plaques memorializing the individuals who fought here. These men have names. We know who died here. We know whose individual acts made a difference.
Utah beach is next, and it's here where I really start to feel the gravity of where we are. The weather takes a turn for the worse and the rain is coming down horizontally. I hardly notice at all. Imagining what happened all around me nearly 70 years ago makes my mind race. We are the only ones here and it is so quiet, but you can almost see and hear and feel what happened on this beach. The rest of our group is heading back to the car. I could have stayed there for hours just looking.
We head to the American Cemetery and Omaha beach. This is what I have come to see, to pay my respect. It's hard to put into words the emotion I feel while we are here. Anyone who has been to Arlington National Cemetery knows the feeling. There is a stillness and a heaviness in the air that brings tears to my eyes as I write this. It's palpable, and it's beautiful. It helps you realize how much people are willing to give, and how much there is to be thankful for.
The bright white crosses and Stars of David are laid out in perfectly symmetrical rows. Every direction you look, perfect. Clean lines and immaculate landscaping, nothing is out of place. Over 9,000 U.S. soldiers died during the D-Day campaign and they are buried here. The cemetery overlooks part of Omaha beach, where the most savage fighting of that day took place. The beach seems so long, the bluffs so high. It's hard to imagine how anyone made it, but they did. The ones buried here died so the rest could make it.
Finally we head to Pointe-du-Hoc, the massive, near vertical cliff jutting out of the sea that the Rangers were tasked to capture on D-Day. It was believed these bluffs overlooking the beaches contained guns that would decimate our troops down below. The grounds are pock marked with bomb craters. The concrete and steal gun emplacements are crumbling. The bunkers are collapsing. But what they did here will always remain. Standing on the cliff's edge looking down to the water you realize how extraordinary the Rangers' feat truly was, and how scared they must have been when they approached it. Yet they did it anyway, and they succeeded. The guns weren't here after all, they had been moved further inland, but that hardly matters. They did it anyway. I'm so grateful.
I feel truly lucky to visit these places, to put my boots on the sand that those soldiers fought and died on, to see a place that was surely hell on earth for those who went through it, and to understand that some people give everything so others may live in a better world. I like to believe I would do the same; I hope I'll never have to find out.