Tag Archives: Normandy

Catalyst

Yesterday, as you may have noticed, we assigned a special blog post to our Piette team: how different has it been for you so far to be in the places where history happened, as opposed to reading about them in books or videos?

The seed of this assignment planted itself in my mind when I was looking for something meaningful to bring back from Normandy for my classroom, or for my French courses.  I looked around in the museums’ gift shops to find DVDs, memorabilia, books, workbooks, comic strips, or replicas.  I became frustrated because none of these things could convey exactly the…  the…  what was it?

It was something that could not be transmitted in any other way than by experiencing the place.  It was a deep, very deep and complex feeling that only the soft sound of the wind and waves over the solemn and simple graves at the D-day cemetery could produce.  It was the awe when looking at the remnants of the artificial harbor at Arromanches, right there, still standing.  Combined with documentaries shown in the museums, these experiences allowed me to literally com-prehend the confusion, the panic, the horror, but also the determination, the courage, and the love that accompanied these boys on the D-day beaches 70 years ago.  From instant drowning on the beach to walking through Paris two months later, anything was possible.

I thought to myself “Good, I’m getting something from this…  wait — that was the major purpose of this program to being with!  To make history tangible.  To make us more aware global citizens.  To give us a deeper sense of history, time, and their lessons.  Well, it’s happening!”

Little did I know what the Memorial in Caen would do to me the next day.

The main part of the Caen Memorial is dedicated to World War II as a whole.  Its structure makes it unique.  It leads the visitor on a chronological path that spirals downwards as time passes, from the roaring 1920s at the top, to the dark years of occupation and total war down at the bottom.  Down low, right after the war declaration in 1939, there is a passage through a large, dark, and almost empty sphere, with only one huge image facing the visitor: Adolf Hitler climbing long stairs towards power.

After that, the soundscape and memorabilia tell the story.  Everyone in our group spent a long time in that tunnel of history.  It was an important moment, as close as I could get to understanding all of this.  It culminated when I read on the wall a letter written to his wife by a German soldier who had to execute numerous women, children, and babies.  At first it was difficult, he wrote.  But then, you got used to it.  And in fact, that death was better than the death these babies would have had with gas or torture, he continued.

Had I read this letter in a book at home, I would have been shocked, but in a very abstract way.  Yesterday, when I read it, tears suddenly rolled on my cheeks, just like that.  My chest burned.  I felt it in my bones.  There, there was the confusion.  There was the horror.  There was the unfathomable.  But not in isolation.  Because I had been at the American cemetery the day before, because I had heard the wind there, because I had seen the harbor at Arromanches, because I had seen the films in the auditorium, because I had walked on Omaha Beach, this letter was able to act as a catalyst, and I touched the unfathomable.  No matter how much I write about it, you will not feel it.  You have to go there and be open.

What’s the point, you say?

Understanding the lessons.  Being warned.  Gaining compassion.  Gaining perspective.  Acting as engaged citizens.  Leading as peacemakers.  As I noticed in the museum because of its great presentation, the substrate of World War II, what made it possible, was a combination of factors that is frighteningly similar to characteristics of our current world: a financial crisis, followed by an economic crisis, accompanied by the rise of political extremes, followed by the casual invasion of territories without much reaction from the international community, for peace’s sake…  rings a bell?

As a nice closure, I realized that the name of the place is not, as I kept saying, the Caen War Memorial, but the Caen Memorial for Peace.  Indeed.

 

Program director expectations

When I was preparing this trip, people invariably warned me. “You know, with students, you have to be careful.” Students will pack too much. They will be late. They won’t listen. They will get lost. They will not follow. They will complain. They will be loud. In short, expect them to be a pain. That’s normal. They are just teenagers.

I knew that my expectations could be slightly higher than these warnings suggested, because Andover teenagers are not “normal.” They are eager to learn, comparatively mature, very very smart, and good people.

Yet I did not expect what I witnessed when we got to Paris. Not only had the students packed reasonably, not only were they following directions and remaining tolerant in challenging situations, but they were always early at meeting times, always at the right meeting points, always staying in groups, always listening carefully, always respectful. They spent a lot of time carefully studying the sites we visited. They asked for more. They had interesting questions for all of our guides, who looked understandably surprised at the relevance of the comments.   As a natural consequence, our guides invariably stayed with us a little longer than necessary, talked to the kids, told them more. Showed them more. I am fairly certain that their eagerness and demeanor was the reason why the MAN’s curator Mrs. Schwab spontaneously offered us to climb onto the roof of the castle at the end of our day with her. She and her staff stayed overtime that evening.

No student has gotten lost (I can’t say as much of the adults!). Everyone is taking care of him or herself remarkably well. We assign a blog post for the next 24h, and the next morning, half of the students have a post. Tonight, all of them ordered dinner in French. Their knowledge of world history has increased significantly, and we are about to dive even more deeply in time now. Onto the South!

WWII memorial and museum at Caen

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Our group spent Tuesday and Wednesday this week in an encounter with the beaches of Normandy and the long shadow cast by the events of June 1944–the D-Day landing and invasion of France. We began with the American Military Cemetery on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Simple white markers identify the graves of nearly 10,000 men lost during the invasion and subsequent offensive. Most striking to me was that as you make your way through the manicured lawn away from the memorial, the vast sea of markers are oriented to the west, away from visitors. It’s as if this lost generation of young men has turned away from the living. The desire is to constantly turn back toward them in a hopeless effort to miss none of their names. Seeing their names, rank, company, date of death, and home state inscribed on each marble marked is staggering. The soundscape also made an impression: the waves below the bluff, the wind through the pine trees, and the birdsong unite to create an impression of peace in stark contrast to the day of the invasion just over 70 years ago. During our visit two F-16 fighters flew over the cemetery, coming in low and gently rocking back and forth, the sound catching up with them a few moments after they were gone. But it is the names of the dead that command your attention as you walk back toward the memorial.

Following the cemetery we headed to Arromanches where the allies fabricated a temporary dock, first envisioned by Winston Churchill, designed to offload tanks, troops, and supplies to fuel the liberation of France and the offensive toward Berlin. Remains of the once massive concrete and steel construction can still be seen offshore. Also in evidence in the towns in Normandy are numerous flags and signs hailing the liberators–reminders of the recent D-Day anniversary. A capstone to our D-Day history lesson was a visit to the World War II memorial and museum in Caen. This museum included an extensive exhibit that explored the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and the entire history of the conflict. The French perspective was interesting, since we rarely consider the battles that ensued, the roving French government, and efforts at resistance. Little known are the concentration camps established in France–some of these before the war–to intern refugees from the Spanish Civil War and French Communist Party members, like those at Gurs or Vernet. These camps swelled after 1940 with anti-Nazis, Jews, and others.

I do take umbrage with one statement in the Caen memorial exhibit: that Adolf Hitler had legally come to power in Germany. The events leading up to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany at the outset of 1933 were the result of more than a decade of fear mongering, bullying, intimidation, killing, and payoffs (including those to Paul von Hindenberg, President of the Weimar Republic), which characterize the Third Reich. Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to seize control of the government in Munich in the early 1920s, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, to the Reichstag Fire Decree, which gave him total control of the government could only be imagined legal in some bizarre mirror universe. Payoffs continued throughout the regime, often to secure loyalty of high ranking military officers.

The film at the Caen memorial, however, demonstrated without a word that the soldiers fighting on both sides on June 6, 1944 had much in common– their youth, for one, as well as lives scarred by war or cut short altogether. The world was robbed of their existence and that of countless generations of children and grandchildren that never were. If you visit the American Cemetery study the names. Can their sacrifice teach us how to avoid conflicts today?

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Hawker fighter plane in the Caen memorial.

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International flags at the Caen memorial.

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Steel piers called “whales” were components in the temporary harbor created at Arromanches.

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The Piette group in front of the Caen memorial.

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Piette group members join the French marines…for a photo.

Monet

When we went to Giverny to see Claude Monet’s house and garden it only really hit me how cool it was when we saw the famous bridge over the water lilies. I kept hearing people around me talk about how walking over the bridge was ‘like being in one of his paintings.’ It brought me back to all of the paintings I saw at the Musée d’Orsay. I still couldn’t make sense of the fact that it was the same place. He managed to create so many different feelings and almost different worlds in all of the different paintings of the same place. It really is hard to wrap your head around the idea that he felt he needed to, as the guide told us, obsessively paint the water lilies over and over. He saw something different each time and I think that shows how he had an entirely different mind set than most.

Walking around his house, you could see all of the different paintings he had hanging up, representing all of these different perceptions of different artists. From people to colors to angles and expressions, it was like walking around with a special set of lenses. It reminded me why I value art so much, not that I forgot, but it just reinforced the feeling, I suppose. It made it all that much harder to accept the fact that some people just might not value art as much as it is actually worth. It reminds me of the quote from the movie Dead Poet’s Society in which Robin Williams’ character tells his class: “The human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” I think about that quote a lot.

Stripes, Normandy, and such

I’m not usually this enthusiastic about stars, stripes, and brass instruments, which is not to say that I’m not patriotic, but simply that I’m cynical. But since my cynicism is the driving force behind this blog post, bear with me.

“Live free or die.”

This nicely condensed quote conveys a major American ideal, one that in my opinion is sometimes considered a given in our society when it is actually a striking idea. In any case, American society embraces freedom in every respect, fighting for Constitutional rights given to its citizens even when the majority of them (us) will not need to exercise each right.

This, then, may have been the reason behind my legitimate confusion as to why the French government “capitulated” to the Germans in World War II. For better or quite often for worse, the American government rarely capitulates unless it is to ensure the freedom of its people, most recently in the case of Sgt. Bowe Berghdahl. So while I wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to send American soldiers to fight against Germany, I rather unfairly refused to understand why the French surrendered.

It wasn’t until we reached the towns in Normandy that I understood that no French person could have been truly ambivalent towards their occupation. With Allied forces bombing their homes and their ways of life overturned by German troops, change barreled its way through their lives. The French people must have been terrified both before the invasion as well as after 1940.

As we drove through the Norman towns, both the French flag and the flag of the country that liberated it flew from many houses, as well as in the town square. Watching French soldiers visit the World War II museums, I had a much greater respect for what gratitude on this scale looks like.

In the American cemetery for those who lost their lives in the war, there is a quote from René Coty, a former president of France, which reads, “Nous n’oublions pas, nous n’oublierons jamais, la dette d’infinie gratitude que nous avons contractée envers ceux qui ont tout donne pour notre liberation.” Roughly translated, this says, “we do not forget, we will never forget, the infinite debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have given everything for our liberation.”

The French have done the most important things they could have done, which is to respect the troops that gave them back their liberty and to uphold the restored democracy with everything in their power.

Beauty and sadness in Normandy

We just finished up our second day in Normandy, and tomorrow we depart for the Loire Valley. Our experiences here could not have been more different from our experiences in Paris, though I think we all continue to be dazzled by France’s beauty.

ImageI think a number of people in our group were particularly taken with our stop at the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny. It’s clear that many of the students knew more about Monet than I did, but for me it was a surprise to learn that he was as equally skilled at gardening as he was at painting. The gardens he kept were stunningly beautiful, and to walk through them is as close as one can come to physically entering into one of his paintings. His gardens are rich and lush, and they dazzle the eye with their masterful manipulation of light and color. To take a walk through Monet’s gardens is to better understand his genius as an artist.

ImageAs much as I enjoyed our visit to Giverny, I was even more moved by today’s visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach. More than 9,000 American soldiers from WWII are buried here, many of whom lost their lives during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 or in the fighting that followed over the course of the next several weeks. Since my own father fought in the European Theater, this visit was especially meaningful for me. He didn’t join the war until after D-Day, but just being there really brought home the sacrifice that all the young men–boys really–of that generation made during that war. Looking out over the choppy sea, you can almost feel the ghostly presence of the nearly 200,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches on that grey, stormy day, straight into the teeth of German machine gun fire. And the field of white crosses, while beautiful, evokes an incredible sense of sadness and respect not only for those who died but for those who survived what had to be a nightmarish day of horror.

AfteImager Omaha Beach, we visited the small town of Arromanches where we went to the Musee Du Debarquement. Here I learned far more than I ever knew about the incredible engineering feats undertaken to ensure the success of the D-Day invasion–most notably the creation of an artificial port that allowed supplies and reinforcements to be brought ashore immediately following the capture of the beach. This was a task that had to be completed in a matter of days while under heavy fire, and the fact that the Allies were able to pull it off is an amazing testament to the ingenuity and cooperation of the generals, admirals, engineers and political leaders of America, Britain and Canada. It was so heartwarming to see how much the people of this region of France appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of all involved, even to this day. In fact, I would hazard to say the people here know far more about the details of the D-Day invasion than the average Amercian.

ImageOur final stop in Normandy was the picturesque town of Bayeux, where we viewed the Tapestry of Bayeux–another incredibly important historical artifact that I’d never heard of. This was a last minute addition to our itinerary–thanks to Dr. Wheeler–and what a fantastic addition it was. This tapestry is over 200 feet long and was created in 1070 to commemorate William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. What makes the tapestry special, besides its size and its age, is that it consists of more than 50 scenes that depict the full story of this conquest. Unlike most pieces of medieval and even ancient art that depict a specific event, this tapestry conveys a whole narrative. At the time it was created, it was a perfect way to share that narrative with a population that was largely illiterate. That the tapestry has survived more than 900 years is practically a miracle. Getting a chance to view it up close was a special treat for all of us.

 

From Pearl Harbor to Normandy: A personal journey

Looking forward to our upcoming time in France, one might imagine that an archaeologist would be most excited to see the painted caves, the national archaeology museum, and to participate in the open-air excavation of the Upper Paleolithic Peyre Blanque site. You would be correct, but our visit to the beaches of Normandy have a special significance for me. Just over 70 years ago my father—H. A. Wheeler (1919-2010)—participated in Operation Neptune, the code name for the naval aspect of the D-Day invasion. Howie—as he was known to his friends—was a Boatswain’s Mate on the USS Nevada (BB-36).

Detail from the mural at the Pearl Harbor Memorial
USS Nevada. Detail from the mural at the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

The Nevada had a long and distinguished career. Constructed in 1916, she was one of the first modern “dreadnought” battleships of the American fleet. Moored in a row with her sister ships at Pearl Harbor, she was the only large vessel to get underway during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Ultimately, her commanding officer scuttled her on Ford Island as the heavily damaged vessel was likely to sink and block the narrow channel. The Boatswain’s crew was generally responsible for maintenance, and as such my father worked on the repair and refloat of the Nevada. Once back in service she provided fire cover during the offensive on Attu and again during the landing of troops on Utah Beach in Normandy.

French map illustrating the D-Day invasion. Utah beach is on the far left. Image courtesy of: www.dday.org
French map illustrating the D-Day invasion. Utah beach is on the far left. Image courtesy of: http://www.dday.org

Accounts of the invasion indicate that the Nevada trained her guns on German shore defenses on the Cherbourg Peninsula, sending some projectiles 17 miles inland to diffuse counterattacks and some as close as 600 yards from the Allied front lines. After the D-Day invasion, the Nevada headed to southern France for the amphibious assault on Toulon. After service in Europe, the Nevada aided in the assault on Iwo Jima before heading to Okinawa to prepare for the invasion of Japan. After the war my father helped prepare the vessel for atomic test blasts in the Marshall Islands before seeing her decommissioned in 1946.

My father never shared much of his wartime service, though from his station on the USS Nevada likely witnessed many of the major naval events of the war. He was awarded a Purple Heart and in the 1990s I submitted the paperwork for the survivor’s medal established by Congress. Reading and looking at pictures is one avenue to understanding where my dad was and what he might have been doing and seeing. Visiting the places that figured in the cruise of the Nevada and the geography of World War II, however, provides another view into a now distant time. Places like Pearl Harbor and the Normandy beaches are charged with an energy that can’t be gleaned from a book or the internet.

Ryan in front of the anchor of the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Ryan in front of the anchor of the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor Memorial.

In 2013, during the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology, I was lucky enough to visit Pearl Harbor. Riding the launch out to the USS Arizona Memorial I kept glancing over at the small white platform that marked the position of the Nevada during the attack. It’s hard to describe the waves of emotion that washed over me walking through the memorial museum or actually riding the waters where the Nevada had floated. I’m looking forward to visiting the beaches of Normandy and expect I may experience some of those feelings again. And I know, too, this is why we preserve historic places—to experience a connection with people and places of the past.