The theme for this next blog post is the difference between reading about history and experiencing it live. In other words, why travel 4000 miles to see all these sites when we could remain in the United States and gain much of the same information through photographs and history books?
I think the best way for me to answer this question is through my experience at Omaha beach, the American cemetery, and Arromanches.
In my History 300 course this year, my classmates and I learned about World War II through the eyes of historians, reading secondary sources and analyses of the war and its origins. We even looked at some photographs of the time period, which revealed the shocking amount of destruction and pain that the war caused. These images and descriptions were certainly moving, yet in my mind, WWII was still the brutal and often fatal battle between the Allies and the Axis.
At the American cemetery at Omaha beach, the inscription on the stone memorial reads, “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideas, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” I walked up and down the rows of graves, reading the names and home states of each fallen American soldier.
Thousands of white crosses and stars spread out before me, each inscribed with a name and a home. In that moment, each soldier became to me not just a number in a horrific death toll but a life with memories and uniqueness. And yes, ideals and valor and sacrifice.
Knowing that some of these men were close to my age made the experience even more personal. Walking to the edge of the cemetery, I looked out over Omaha beach, standing on the promontory that so many soldiers scaled to reach higher ground. Looking out across the plain-like beach into the choppy sea, the footage I had seen of D-Day became infinitely more relevant.
I had the chance to visit Arromanches with the Piette group on the same day. Arromanches was the town at which the British built Mulberry B – the port to which supplies for the Allies were delivered across the channel. In less than two weeks, under the instruction of Churchill, massive parts for this floating port had been constructed, towed to France, and pieced together by the British soldiers on the D Day coast. In order to break the waves flowing towards the port, the soldiers sunk several retired battleships and 7,000-ton concrete blocks that had been produced in England.
In staring out across the water on the shore at Arromanches, my trip mates and I could still see these pieces of the port. While we could have learned much of the information about Mulberry and its significance in a classroom, experiencing the port in real life gave us a sense of the sheer massiveness of the port and the kind of determination it would have taken to construct such a structure in mere days.
Experiencing places in real life gives them an importance, relevance, and emotional relatability that is almost impossible to reach from looking at photographs or reading descriptions.