A month before the 79th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, we visited Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans attacked into Nazi-occupied Normandy. Their objective was to take the beach, clear the German defenses, and push further inland. Unluckily, the aerial and naval bombardments did not destroy German defenses and emplacements, which led to Omaha being the bloodiest beach taken on D-Day. Around 2,400 Americans died on June 6 at Omaha alone, yet through individual perseverance and courage they created a beachhead and made a foothold in Normandy strong enough to hold and use for their push across France.
Omaha Beach perfectly aligned with what I learned in my research on World War II– although I found that standing on and seeing the exact place where a famous battle took place is quite different from reading about it in a book or hearing a lecture about it . One can hear someone can say “US soldiers jumped from their Higgins boats over 400 meters away from the German machine guns”, but one cannot get a full grasp of that distance until one has stood there and seen it. Although we arrived at an hour when the tide was rising, I was still surprised at the distance between the waves and the German emplacements. It was much farther than what I had visualized, and the soldiers in the first wave had an even larger distance between them and the enemy. Tasked with crossing that huge stretch of flat beach, with very little cover, and under fire from German defenders, I cannot imagine the fear and terror the soldiers must have had in those moments. After learning, watching documentaries and movies, and reading books about Omaha Beach, being on the beach itself had a special, almost otherworldly feel to it, as it is one of the most famous battles in American history.
Today, one must know some military history and use some imagination to understand and appreciate the drama of the battle that happened here. That is because Omaha is now a public swimming beach, from which all the defensive works–the Belgian gates, logposts, hedgehogs, and log ramps–have been removed. While the memorials at the two ends of the beach recall the drama and heroism of the battle, I think that preserving some of the German defensive works on a small section of the beach, even just a few meters wide, would help visitors appreciate the history of the battle. The empty beach requires a lot of imagination—and makes it easy for we as a people to forget.
This was a defensive structure called a Czech hedgehog,
intended to stop or slow down tanks, vehicles, and even
ships from getting further up the beach.
For me, standing on Omaha beach was an incredibly powerful experience. At first, I spent a few minutes looking seaward, imagining thousands of soldiers jumping from their boats into the sea, finding their way across the sand, advancing in the face of determined and violent resistance. Although the tide has cleaned the blood from these shores, I could still feel the gravity and heaviness of this place, even after 79 years. I could feel the soldiers struggle in the surf. I could sense death in the quietude, the brutal violence in the ever-crashing waves, and the importance of their cause in the peaceful town nearby.
On our visit to the American Cemetery in Normandy, each of us had the honor to place a flag on the grave of one of the 12 Buckeyes buried in the American Military Cemetery. This picture is the headstone of Robert Smith, a Cincinnati native who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, class of 1940. Smith was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 394th Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Forces, and he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. He was killed in action on June 22, 1944, while engaged in an aerial attack on German forces in Cherbourg.
It was a very special moment for all of us, to decorate the headstones of a soldiers from Ohio State, who gave their lives to stop Nazi tyranny.