Stop two, Bayeux, France.
Heading into the trip I knew this would be one of the places that affected me the most emotionally. After focusing on Omaha Beach during class, I was intrigued to experience the sight in person. Before the program I couldn’t picture the thousands of soldiers or the setup of the beach. I assumed the bluffs were similar to dunes and didn’t understand the exact set up of the German defense and just how deadly it was.
A few things drastically changed my perspective. First, the American Cemetery in Normandy opened my eyes to the people involved. The graves just kept going and they were all identical, aside from the Jewish stones which contained the Star of David. The stones were perfectly set so each row was a perfect line in any direction. The British Cemetery was also quite emotional for different reasons. Although the number of graves were much smaller, the graves had personal messages which humanized and brought attention to who the individual soldiers were. I happened upon a grave with my last name, and the soldier died at the age of twenty. This stuck me especially hard because as a current 20 year old I began to imagine what my life would be during that time period.
I also was shocked at the amount of unknown soldiers and the way they were set to rest. In the German Cemetery, the stones simply translated as “Unknown German Soldier,” whereas the British and American cemeteries gave much more honorable dedications both saying the soldiers were known but to God. Evidently, the honor bestowed on the soldiers was depending on their country.
Second, the actual beach still contains the German bunkers. These bunkers are not only directly on the beach but also much higher up than I imagined. The bluffs are much taller than dunes and semi- resemble small mountains in which the German gunman and snipers could easily pick apart the American troops. The beach was also much wider than I imagined, and it was truly horrifying imagining the fear and determination as the men tried to make their way to the bluffs. We were standing in the spot where the first waves of the 29th division landed, specifically, the 116th infantry. This group of about 150 National Guard soldiers suffered a huge loss with only around 19 soldiers not being killed or injured. These men were told they would be given a front row seat to the greatest show on earth. The Allies believed their bombing and naval shelling campaigns would destroy or at least damage the German bunkers and the men would simply walk up the beach. This however was not the case as the campaigns did relatively nothing. As compared to Point Du Hoc, which had bomb craters everywhere, Omaha was basically untouched. The bunkers were set up in such a manner that the first waves of men had almost no hope of survival. They had around 500 yards of open sand before the bluffs. Standing on the beach with the tide out really showed just how dreadfully far the men had to run without cover and with enemy fire as strong as a storm wind. Lastly, Point Du Hoc gave me a chance to see just how difficult the tasks at hand were. The cliffs that Rangers had to climb were much higher than I expected, and the bombs left such deep craters in the ground. It amazed me that the site remained intact and no one interfered with preserving it. The bunkers and even the craters in the ground were basically untouched. Although some of the bunkers had collapsed from wear and tear of weather, the remains were not moved. The craters were also not filled in which gave a great perspective of the destruction of the bombs.
Overall Normandy was incredibly moving. I enjoyed it because you were consistently immersed in the history even when we were just walking around the town. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the rich history the town had worked so hard to preserve.