Day 5 was quite the excursion! We began the day nice and early at the last of our World War I tour, with a final Museum in Peronne. The last half of our day consisted of a wonderful tour given by a man with such character, such tenacity, and such imagination! Our first stop had us at the American Cemetery of Normandy. It just so happened that the previous night we travelers, had embarked on an emotional journey by watch Saving Private Ryan (If you have not seen this movie, but have an interest in WWII, you’re missing out). Our tour guide, Duncan had disclosed that the first and final scene of Saving Private Ryan had indeed been shot in that very graveyard. Of course, this was the least exciting fact of being on that soil.
We “had a wonder” through the cemetery hearing different stories of our fallen heroes lives. First, Duncan had told us that the cemetery was well cared for by very proud grounds keepers. In fact there was one shrub, bush, or plant from every state in the USA. We also learned that the cemetery had trees with no points, and that it was done on purpose. They were cut to be flat tops to symbolize the tombs of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Th pharaohs’ tombs had a flat top, and so that is what the grounds keepers did for the brave men (and 4 women) who died fighting in the Battle of Normandy. Second, Duncan had told us that every head stone (either Latin crosses or star of Davids) was facing west. The direction of the United States of America, and at the end of this cemetery there were gates guarded by angels to assure the brave ones’ safe passage home. Walking through the hallowed ground that holds so many of our fallen heroes definitely puts the Second World War in perspective. The United Stated played a major role in this war, and the American presence is still very much there.
Next, Duncan had showed us the graves of the inspiration behind the notorious movie. The Nilan brothers (buried side by side) were two of four boys who were fighting in this war. The third was MIA and the last was still alive, serving his country. The story goes that upon given the chance, the brother still serving was given the choice to go home, or to remain in the service. He had chosen to remain “with his boys.” After having said that, Nilan was handcuffed and forced back to New York, back to his mother, to work at the desks in the War Department. There was indeed a happy ending for the other Nilan brother who was MIA. He was found as a POW and returned safely home.
Interesting still, the name for the character of Tom Hanks in the movie had come from another headstone in the cemetery. According to “legend” that character did not have a name until later in filming. The program that the directors used to shift around the cemetery back drop (Spielberg thought that having Omaha Beach in the background would be more poetic, than having the stones face west) needed a center point to start switching all nine thousand head markers. That headstone happed to be Sergeant Richard F. Miller. And so came the name of Hank’s character in the film.
We toured later the field of Pointe du Hoc. Another major battlefront for America, and the stories there were bone chilling. Lastly, our tour ended on Omaha Beach. This was no ordinary beach day, this was much different. With the movie fresh in our minds, and the history in front of our eyes, we journeyed onto one of the most devastating American victories of World War II.
When retelling the story to my father, he had asked if the beach felt spooky. At first I would have said yes, but I think a better word is eerie. Though much has changed in the passed 70+ years, that beach still hums with life. The salt of the water, mixed with the salt of the blood of those soldiers. The stones still conceal bullets used against our men. The wind whips around our hair and whispers the secrets of history. This beach holds the souls of brave, brave men; men that arrived to their deaths. The heartbreak is deafening. It was nearly overwhelming. The amount of respect and emotion that welled in my heart was eternal. The only thing I wish I could do, was pay the amount of respect that place—those men—deserve. It nearly took the breath from my lungs.
Needless to say, the excursion we embarked on yesterday had altered my perception on American involvement in World War II. Though I always knew the role our country played was massive, and important, I some how was unable to comprehend the sacrifice given in order to better the world.
Tomorrow will be a different kind of adventure. The city of lights awaits.
–The GCU Travel Crew
Ps. Enjoy the pictures!