Keeping history alive: The D-Day invaston

It was the largest military naval invasion in history. More than 7,000 ships, 10,000 aircraft and 165,000 Allied soldiers participated in this epic battle known as D-Day in northern France designed to turn the tide against Nazi Germany’s aggression in World War II.

The day was June 6, 1944. The gentle sloping beaches of Normandy became the site of some of the fiercest fighting seen up to that time during the war. By the end of that fateful day, all five beaches of the Normandy coastline (code names Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword) had been successfully taken by the invading Allied forces, but not without great cost in terms of human lives. The Allies, consisting mainly of British, American, and Canadian forces, lost more than 7,000 killed in action and more than 20,000 wounded; the German defenders had more than 6,000 soldiers die and 11,000 wounded.

And within the next month, more than 2,000,000 Allied soldiers and countless amounts of tanks, trucks and jeeps, as well as hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies (shells, bullets, guns, gasoline and other supporting material) had landed on the Normandy coast in support of the overall invasion tactics.

On my bucket list visit to the D-Day beaches in 2016, something my tour guide mentioned while we stood on Omaha Beach really pricked my heart. His comment was that he was seeing fewer and fewer younger Americans coming over to view the D-Day area. When I asked what his definition of “younger” Americans was, his reply was “Fifty, sixty, and seventy year olds” – the children of the soldiers that fought in this very battle. That really hurt.

I have always been a student of history, especially World War II and more specifically D-Day, as my Dad had been a pilot in the Army Air Corp in the ‘40s. He flew C-47s, the main troop and material transport planes of that time. His main job was the training of the very glider pilots who landed in Normandy on D-Day.

After coming home from my first visit to the D-Day Beaches, my Rotary Club (the Arlington Sunrise Rotary Club) asked me to present a program on my experiences in Normandy. It was during the construction of that presentation that I realized I had a story to tell and a responsibility to keep the history of that battle that occurred some 75 years ago alive in the hearts and minds of the public.

I had more than 2,200 photographs to select from to use in the program. Realizing that most civic, church, school and veterans groups usually only allow around 30 minutes for a program, I was forced to cull the number of photos I wanted to use down to around 100, allowing for a small amount of narrative during the presentation. After making my presentation, “Re-Visiting the D-Day Beaches,” for a third time, a couple of people came up to me and asked how they could take a trip like I had made. I called my friends who had hosted my original trip, Walter and Kim Eagleton of Artistic Gourmet Adventures, and asked them to set up an Adventure for a small group of interested travelers. They obliged, and in the Fall of 2018, I took my first group of history buffs to France to review the D-Day area. Since then, I have hosted three more groups on this D-Day trek and have two weeks scheduled for 2020.

To help visitors properly experience this iconic area in only five days, I designed an itinerary very strategically. On Day One, we visited the Utah Beach and Museum area, including the Crisbecq Gun Battery; the Dick Winters and the 101st Airborne Memorial (of the Band of Brothers fame); the La Fiere Bridge Battle monument along with the Iron Mike statue; the Chateau de Bernaville – a site where Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had visited – and a famous aid station in Angoville where two U.S. Army Medics treated both Americans and Germans wounded inside a church.

On our second day, we visited the Maisy Gun Battery (which had been kept top secret by the American and British governments until 2004); Point du Hoc (where Colonel James Earl Rudder of the 2nd Rangers were tasked to scale 100-foot cliffs and take out six big German guns); Omaha Beach and WN 60 (a German strong point on the eastern end of the Beach) and finally to the American Cemetery where 9,388 Americans are buried. As this was at the end of the day, we experienced a very moving Flag ceremony.

Day Three saw us traveling to Gold Beach, the town of Arromanch to view a moving account of D-Day in a circular theater and also a chance to see one of the two Mulberry Harbors built by the Allies to offload the larger ships in the English Channel. Additionally, we saw the Longues sur Mer Gun battery and the first town liberated by the Allies on D-Day, Bayeux.

On Day Four, we paid a visit to the Juno Beach Centre. Le Grand Bunker and Sword Beach, as well as the Merrville Gun Battery and the Pegasus Bridge, were also highlights. And finally, we spent the entirety of Day Five at Le Mont St. Michel, a fort/prison/city/abby to the west of Normandy, a few hundred yards out in the English Channel.

We must keep history alive, especially the sacrifices made on that fateful day. I have presented the program, “Re-Visiting the D-Day Beaches,” more than 100 times to various groups. If you would like me to share it with your group, contact me at southernflair@sbcglobal.net.

Also, if you are interested in going on a week-long adventure to Normandy to visit the D-Day Beaches, reach out to me.