Vacation and travel means different things to different people. For some, travel means having fun, relaxing, or going on an adventure. For others their reason for travel is spending time with family and friends, learning, or even experiencing another culture. After our travels last year I've added another reason to my list: connecting with history. As we celebrate Memorial Day, and with the anniversary of D-Day just around the corner, I'd like to share one of our travel experiences where we had an opportunity to connect with history.
During a Disney Cruise to the British Isles during the summer of 2016, we had the opportunity to visit Normandy, France. One of the excursions offered was a day trip to Disneyland Paris, which seems like an obvious choice for someone who spends a good chunk of their vacation time and budget on Disney related vacations, not to mention someone who specializes in Disney based travel. However, the other choice was a D-Day Tour through Normandy. In our house, country comes before Disney. We chose the Normandy D-Day Tour.
As our bus traveled to our first destination in Normandy, one thing stood out to me immediately. Here we were in France, but there were A LOT of American, British and Canadian flags on display. Now this might be expected at the historical sites, but they hung from people's houses and in the windows of businesses. The closer we got to the landing beaches, the more of these flags we saw. In some areas that we drove through, the "foreign" flags outnumbered the French flags. Here it was 70 years later, and the people of Normandy still flew the flags of the countries that liberated them. They flew these flags to honor the soldiers that fought and died for their freedom.
Our first stop was the town of Arromanches, the home of the Mulberry Harbor. Here we learned about one of the greatest engineering feats in history, but something most people have never heard about. You see, in order to deliver the huge number of reinforcements, vehicles, and supplies necessary for a successful invasion, the Allies needed a harbor.
The existing harbors in France were too well defended and would likely be rendered unusable during an attack. They couldn't build a port, because that would take years under normal circumstances, much less while under attack. The Allies would have only a matter of days before German reinforcements would overwhelm the initial landing force. Their solution? Build the harbor in England and bring it to Normandy in pieces, towed by ships. Within one week of D-Day the first pier became operational. Much of the harbor has disappeared in the last 70 years, but you can still see some of the remains.
Our next stop was the American Cemetery and Memorial, the resting place for almost 10,000 U.S. soldiers who lost their lives on D-Day and in the months that followed. The land where these soldiers rest was given to America by the French and is technically considered American soil. The cemetery overlooks part of Omaha beach, the very site where many of them lost their lives. It's pretty overwhelming to stand amongst the rows and rows of crosses and Stars of David that mark the grave sites. They seem to go on forever.
After visiting the American Cemetery we went to the Omaha Beach Memorial. Omaha beach is perhaps the most well-known of the five landing beaches, having been the site of some the fiercest fighting on D-Day. This was also the beach featured in the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan. If not for the memorial that stood at the top of the beach, you would never know what happened there 70+ years earlier. You can only try to imagine the setting with soldiers fighting their way up the mine covered beach, littered with obstacles, only to be pinned down at the bottom of the heavily fortified bluffs. It was a very powerful experience just to stand on that sand.
Off in the distance you could see families enjoying the beach, children playing, and even someone flying a kite. It was hard to reconcile that people could be having fun in this solemn place. But then you reflect on the fact that the soldiers that fought and died on that beach did it so that these people could have their country, their towns, and their homes back. They died so that children could once again play on that beach that was once covered with mines and overlooked by soldiers with machine guns.
Our last stop on our Normandy tour was Pointe du Hoc where we learned the incredible story of the 2nd Ranger Battalion's assault there. Pointe du Hoc was the location of a gun emplacement and observation tower that covered Omaha beach. It was crucial that this gun emplacement be taken out, otherwise the forces landing at Omaha would be under constant fire from artillery. The assault force was supposed to be made up of over 700 Rangers, but 500 soldiers ended up landing at the wrong beach, leaving just 225 Rangers to complete the mission.
The most amazing part of the story comes once you understand that the artillery battery was located at the top of a 100 foot cliff. The soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed up the cliff using rope ladders shot up the cliff by grappling hook. All this while German soldiers shot at them from fortified positions atop the very cliff they were climbing. The Rangers fought their way to the top only to discover that the artillery battery they had been sent there to destroy had been moved. Despite suffering heavy casualties, they regrouped and went out on patrol to find and destroy the guns, completing their mission. By the end of their assault, the force of 225 had suffered 135 casualties.
Since we've returned from our trip, I've reflected on that day in Normandy, as well as some of the other tours from that trip that had a significant World War II connection. During our tours, we learned about important events that I had either never heard of, or had never given the attention they deserved.
I began to think about all of the places we passed, but didn't stop at. The museums, the villages, the bunkers, and battlefields that each had their own story. We could have easily spent another two days there touring those sites. And that was just in Normandy. What of the important sites in other places? What about Bastogne, Auschwitz and Dachau, for example? Those are places with a story just as important as Normandy. I'm sure there are more that I don't even know about. With all of these sites, I started to realize how easy it would be to plan a trip completely focused on the history of World War II.
Our history is important. Honoring and remembering our soldiers and what they fought and died for is important. Hopefully the stories and experiences that I've shared in this post have brought a little more meaning to what today is about. I can honestly say that the World War II tours that we did on this trip were the most impactful and important things we did on that vacation. Now that I have been there in person, I have a completely different understanding and connection to this part of history.
As a result of this trip, I would encourage everybody to try and experience some "Memorial Day inspired travel". If you aren't ready to plan your whole vacation around it, you can always start by carving out a couple of days from an existing trip. Most places in Europe are close enough to some sites that you could visit one without too much trouble. Of course, World War II sites are not your only option. There are other conflicts, wars, battles, liberations, and memorials that you can visit and learn about, some even in the United States. The important thing is that you find your way to connect with history and not let the stories of the soldiers, and the people they fought for, be forgotten.
One of the remaining pieces of the Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches
Pieces of the Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches
Memorials on Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach. Off in the distance you can see the bluffs that the soldiers faced once they crossed the beach.
The American Cemetery in Normandy
The Memorial at the American Cemetery in Normandy. The trees are cut short to represent the lives of the soldiers that were also cut short.
Memorial dedication at Pointe du Hoc
Pieces of the Mulberry Harbor foreground and off in the distance
2nd Ranger Battalion Memorial at Pointe du Hoc
The cliffs surrounding Pointe du Hoc. This gives you a sense for what they had to climb up.
Looking down from the German observation bunker
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