In honor of Veterans Day I thought I would write about my recent trip to Utah Beach. Utah Beach is a sandy beach in the Normandy region of France which is across the English Channel from Great Britain. It is also the location of the famous D-Day invasion . On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded Western Europe in the largest amphibious attack in history, and part of that attack happened on Utah Beach. D-Day was a crucial turning point in the war.
As an American, I grew up with the images of WWII and D-Day in particular constantly in front of my eyes. Perhaps because of the advances in camera technology at the time or maybe because of the human fascination with someone as evil and monstrous as Hitler, WWII is given more airtime (on TV, in our education, etc) than any other war. There is something about WWII that Americans can’t get enough of, but because it happened across the ocean it never becomes a reality for those of us who weren’t alive at the time.
In my travels around the USA, I’ve visited quite a few battlefields which were important in the revolutionary and civil wars. While these were interesting historical places, it was hard to imagine what it was really like. When you see images or recreations of what it may have been like in civil war times, the clothing, technology, etc feels so different from who we are today that it’s hard to feel connected to what happened. That’s not how it is for WWII. It’s very easy to imagine and feel connected to the soldiers of that time, because every American has met a WWII Veteran. They may not have had cellphones, but they had cars and airplanes and cameras. And there are a lot of pictures of what actually happened. It’s easier to imagine it when I’ve actually seen it.
That’s why when I was driving to the beach I couldn’t stop imagining young soldiers creeping across every field, and driving through the local towns I couldn’t stop imagining helmets peeking out around corners. I feel like I’ve been there before a million times and seen it. But it’s actually just from photographs. It’s a very strange sensation.
Standing on the beach evoked a similar response. There I was standing on this beautiful, sandy beach on a peaceful, sunny morning. It was shockingly pretty in fact, and the only evidence of its history was the museum peering over the dunes. But again, it was so easy to imagine the machine guns shooting over the dunes at soldiers running past large metal Xs. I’ve seen that image so many times on television and in movies that I could practically hear it.
Utah Beach June 6, 1944
Utah Beach October 30, 2016
I’ve never experienced anything quite like that. I’ve never been to a place that made it so easy to imagine it’s history.
The museum was very interesting. It had lots of good information about that day, but one display that really spoke to me was “A Letter to an American” written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French aviator that flew in support of the Allies on D-Day. In that letter he makes the point that American soldiers did not go to war to protect the material interests of the USA, and he says:
“And what were they told that could motivate them to sacrifice their lives? They were told of hostages hanged in Poland. They were told of prisoners shot in France. They were told that a new form of slavery threatened to extinguish a part of Humanity. They were told not about themselves, but of others. That gave them a sense of solidarity with all mankind.”
Thank you to the Americans that have given their lives to protect humanity, and thank you to anyone that has served in the armed forces and taken on the responsibility of sacrifice. I will not take my freedom for granted. Happy Veterans Day!