Growing up, my favorite era in modern history was World War II. I loved all of the WWII movies and television series; Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Flags of Our Fathers, etc. I was captivated by the WWII novels written by Jeff Shaara and was equally as taken by Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation." In my sophomore year of high school, I even convinced my history teacher to show Saving Private Ryan during lunch before class, especially the opening scene which depicts the Normandy invasion on D-Day. He agreed to show it, despite its graphic content, and I remember feeling a sense of pride when some of my fellow classmates sat down to watch. I knew many of them hadn't yet seen the movie, let alone this scene, so I was content to see them witnessing an important historical experience, albeit through the fictional lens of film.
As many of you know, the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan depict the stunning experience and bravery of American soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy - in particular, Omaha Beach. The 40 minutes of carnage and sheer chaos was presented as best as any film director could present it. You could just feel the emotions associated with facing a Hurculean task as soldiers are shown trudging through muddy sand (some not even able to make it to sand) all the while bullets from MG-42s, mortars and artillery shells rained down on them.
Yet, as impactful as this scene was, nothing quite matches up with the experience of actually visiting the sites where the action took place. During our 12-day cruise across the Bay of Biscay, Cruises & Beyond arranged a private tour for our cleints and enlisted the expert WWII Historian Sean Claxton (who was absolutely wonderful) to guide us through a tour de horizon of Point du Hoc, the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach.
Our first stop was Point du Hoc, an icon of achievement for American soldiers during the massive D-Day operations of nearly 74 years prior.
Our time spent at Point du Hoc produced the most vivid exposure to the realities of D-Day. The unchanged landscapes gave a stunning snapshot of the destruction of war, as craters shaped from artillery barrages and damaged bunkers lined the cliffs. When you look down at how small the beachheads are below the cliffs, you begin to realize that what historians tell you of the gargantuan task the U.S. Rangers faced was even more impossible than anything you could have imagined.
When President Ronald Reagan stood here 34 years ago to commerate the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, he captured the heroism of these Rangers best with these words:
"These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
For it was here that 225 men braved relentless gunfire and took the cliffs. After German counterattacks that sought to retake the cliffs, the Rangers held strong despite heavy casualties. By the end of the 2-day long battle, only 90 Rangers remained. But they had accomplished their mission and taken out the artillery batteries at Point du Hoc, which were firing on the other beaches at the time of the invasion.
Leaving Point du Hoc, our group headed to Omaha Beach, where retraced the steps the V Corps of the Allied forces took to overcome the most difficult of all beach landings on D-Day. The landings here produced the most casualties for American troops on June 6, 1944, estimated at around 2,000 to 4,700 lost and wounded souls.
The scene these days at Omaha Beach is drastically different from what you see in historical photos and movies. No longer do you see the coastal Czhech hedgehogs that the Germans put up to defend against a seaward invasion; in fact, not much of the old defense network is left aside from a few damaged bunkers here and there.
In its place instead is a quaint little beachtown, similar to what you would see in the southern coast of California. Multigerational families now come to Omaha Beach to enjoy the sand and weather that Northern France has to offer while monuments honor those who fought and perished on D-Day. Some say that the casual atmosphere of the beach today dishonors the military men who gave so much to take back this land. Others say that this scene is exactly what they fought for. You have to be there to decide for yourself.
Our next and final destination was the Normandy American Cemetery, which contains the graves of 9,385 American military men who lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. This was the most somber portion of our full-day tour. Personally, I had only seen this cemetary through, once again, the perspective of film (Saving Private Ryan). To be standing in this sea of headstones in person, amongst men who gave their lives to a cause most pivotal to the course of human history, was an experience that I can never forget. We pondered their sacrifice with geat humility and in respectful silence, the magnitude of their collective heroism consuming our entire group.
Travel is much more than going to a destination to take photos and say you've been there. It's more than souveneirs and snapshots that you can show to your friends and family. What makes travel special, what makes it a complete experience, is learning about the history of the destination you're going to. It's the substance - the history - that defines the sights you see. It is our willingness to discover the past that drives us to travel, and in that same breath, teaches ourselves to become better people. It is moments like these in our trip to Normandy that I can say we gained the complete experience of travel.