June 8th, 2015 was a cold, rainy morning in Normandy, France. I was barely able
to sleep due to my sheer excitement. I couldn’t stop thinking about what this area
would’ve looked like on June 6th, 1944; the day of the largest and deadliest invasion in
history. And I was about to see it for myself.
My interest in history started years ago, spawned by my grandfather, who gave
me military history books and model airplanes throughout my childhood. To this day,
every time I see Grandpa, we discuss the effects of certain World War II battles on the
conflict and the world as a whole. These conversations are some of my favorite
moments with my grandfather. Eating breakfast that June morning, I thought back to our
discussions about D-Day, wondering what Grandpa would say if he could see the
Normandy sites with me.
In Normandy, as I visited the German cemetery, I thought about the 20,000 or so soldiers, most not much older than me, piled three to four per grave beneath unwashed flat markers. It seemed to me that maybe their remains were treated unfairly, since the vast majority were most likely “regular” draftees, who didn’t necessarily espouse Nazi ideology. At the village of Sainte-Mère-Église, the first liberated by the US Army on D-Day, I touched metal fences and walls still pockmarked with bullet holes from the first night of the invasion, and imagined what the initial battle was like for the soldiers on both sides. I toured a church where a US paratrooper became entangled on the steeple during the initial assault, and thought about what he must have felt, stranded there, and what his life was like as a German captive.
Our final stop, the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur- Mer, is what most people picture when they think about the sacrifices made at Normandy. Walking through the colonnade and entering the cemetery was astonishing. Perfect marble crosses stretched across seemingly endless rows upon rows, which at every angle formed perfect lines. The scale was incomprehensible. I was amazed by the beauty of the hilltop setting which overlooked Omaha Beach, a historic landing site from the invasion. As far as I could see, Omaha Beach was coated with perfectly smooth, pristine golden sand. The English Channel was jewel-blue, swelling silently in light gusts. Heading to the bus, I still struggled to fully grasp what had happened in this countryside back in 1944.
One of my favorite aspects of history is comparing and contrasting past situations with current events to predict the imminent future. Recently, I have closely watched the Russian intervention in Ukraine, which exhibits parallels between their seizure of Crimea and Germany’s occupation of the Czech Sudetenland, both under the guise of protecting minorities. While I’m not insinuating Russia will start World War III anytime soon, it is probable that the conflict in eastern Ukraine will expand. Noticing similarities between the past and present is something that I love to do, as well as theorize about the future using historic events.
Visiting historical military sites, instead of just reading about them in books, helps
me understand events more clearly and compare them to situations today. Despite the
sadness of viewing the remembrances of the casualties, I wouldn’t trade my experience
of seeing Normandy for anything else. When I returned, I called my Grandpa to talk. We
spoke for thirty minutes about things like his personal recollections of first hearing the
news of the invasion on the radio in Argentina and German General Rommel’s response
to the Allied troops’ landing. Hearing his stories really embody history for me, speaking with someone who actually lived during the events interests me so much more. The next time I visited Grandpa, we watched Saving Private Ryan. Touring Normandy allowed me to see amazing places, and it helped further connect with my Grandpa, which is something I am thankful for.