I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when we got to both the Normandy American Cemetery on Tuesday, nor Omaha Beach. As a recent participant in History 300 (a course centered around about the last 350 years in America), with a high interest in World War II, attending these sites have been excellent supplements to my education. In addition, there is tremendous emotional baggage associated with the beaches and memorials in Normandy; it seems impossible to think of these sites, or even the region as a whole, without thinking of June 6, 1944.
Each of the sites were overwhelming in their own ways. In the cemetery, the effects of the Battle of Normandy are laid out in front of you; endless rows of marble gravestones stretch out as far as the eye can see. Thus, it was easy to visualize the impact of the conflict. Nonetheless, this did not detract from the power of the site; in fact, the vastness of the cemetery left me breathless. I was constantly reminding myself that each gravestone is representative of a real person, despite the impersonality of the symmetrical tombstones.
Somewhat contrastingly, I was most struck by the normalcy of Omaha Beach. With the exception of a few large, commemorative monuments, it looks like a completely normal beach. While we were there, a group of [presumably local] teenagers even started swimming in the ocean; extremely disrespectful, though it serves my point. Here, I felt overwhelmed by the contrast between how the beach appears now, and what it must have been like during the battle… When I closed my eyes, I tried to envision the type of carnage on Omaha depicted in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, but found the task nearly impossible. There, it was much more difficult to appreciate the significance of the beach. Only later did it truly hit me that where we stood, was the site of the bloodiest battle in Normandy.
Overall, I found myself in deep reflection throughout the majority of our time in Caen/Normandy, and felt extremely moved by the places we visited on Tuesday. I am extremely grateful to those who gave their lives for the cause of the Allies on the beaches, and I hope that our tradition of visiting these sites helps to properly honor their legacies.