Seventy-five years ago, American men took a different trip abroad than I. We both experienced the towering cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, the immense stretches of Omaha Beach, and the thick vegetation of Normandy’s terrain, but we did so from vastly different viewpoints and circumstances.
I approached Pointe du Hoc from the rear, navigating the German bunkers and Allied bomb craters, the wind being the only resistance in sight. I quickly realized that the cliffs were taller than I ever imagined, extending one hundred feet up from the water’s edge. The 2nd and 5th Army Rangers were tasked with scaling these cliffs and taking German artillery positions at the top so that they could not be used against Operation Overlord landings.
The incomprehensible destruction that lined Omaha Beach became painfully easier to picture. A seemingly unending beach extended for miles and stretched a few hundred yards from surf to land. Omaha, minus the German obstacles, looked as flat as it probably did back in 1944; the Allied preparatory bombing missed its mark entirely leaving no craters for American troops to take cover in. Thousands of American soldiers lost their lives storming the beach, their bodies and equipment stretching the coastline.
Encountering the bocage for myself – thick, overgrown shrubs with tangled root systems – confirmed how the Germans were able to provide such formidable resistance to the American advance. These networks of dense plants lined the side of roads, confused GIs with their maze-like configuration, and supplied the Germans with perfect places for hidden defensive positions.
I quickly became overwhelmed with admiration and sadness when visiting the Normandy American Cemetery. Nearly 10,000 crosses dotted the stretch of land in perfect formation, each cross representing an American serviceman who made the ultimate sacrifice. I realized that many of the men in this cemetery were my age or younger and died fighting in a struggle that many felt they did not belong in. However, these men went on and climbed one hundred feet in the air, ran straight into German machine gun fire, and navigated unfamiliar land with a concealed enemy. The cliffs, beaches, and terrain provided me with a sobering understanding of the grim reality that American servicemen faced in Normandy and more appreciation for the surely impossible tasks they accomplished.