A Journey into History: Normandy Beach, France
~Story by Joanne Miceli, Assistant Director of Communications at Blair Academy (Reposted with permission)
The Allied Forces’ June 6, 1944, D-Day landing at Normandy Beach, France, was one of World War II’s most significant operations in the fight against the Nazi regime. This summer, Grace Miller ’18, Aidan Smarth ’20 and Associate Dean of Admission Teddy Wenner ’96 journeyed deep into the history of the battle and subsequent liberation of Normandy during two weeks in France. Their trip included student homestays, tours of the battle sites and the surrounding region, and priceless opportunities to speak with those who lived through the war, all of which led to a deeper realization of the Allied soldiers’ courage and the Norman citizens’ enduring gratitude.
The trip was facilitated by Normandy Allies, Inc., a nonprofit founded to promote greater historical understanding of the 1944 Normandy liberation and the reconstruction of France that followed. Blair students have taken part in Normandy Allies experiences for nearly two decades, thanks in large part to Archer Martin ’42, a Bronze Star- and Purple Heart-recipient who fought in the Normandy campaign when he was just 19 years old. His desire to give Blair students a firsthand look at Normandy and an understanding of the importance of the events that took place there have inspired his generous annual gifts to the School that help fund annual Normandy Allies trips.
“We’re incredibly grateful to Mr. Martin for his support of this experience,” Mr. Wenner said. The two men met for the first time at Alumni Weekend this past June, as Mr. Martin celebrated his 75th Blair reunion. Given Mr. Wenner’s military background—he is a 2000 U.S. Military Academy graduate who served for several years in Germany with the 1st Infantry Division, and his own grandfather was an Army Air Corps B-17 navigator during the Normandy assault—he and Mr. Martin had much in common, and they enjoyed talking about the upcoming trip.
From July 16 to 29, the Blair contingent followed a travel itinerary crafted by Normandy Allies’ expert historical team. Accompanied by Normandy Allies founder Marsha Smith and 12 students and chaperones from other U.S. high schools, Mr. Wenner, Aidan and Grace learned about Norman history and culture through exploration of chapels, cathedrals and museums; witnessed the magnitude of Allied lives lost at the British Cemetery, Normandy American Military Cemetery and several others; and visited key landing and battle sites, including Juno Beach, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach and the hedgerow country around Saint-Lô.
The group was privileged to attend luncheons and receptions with French citizens, now in their 90s, who shared firsthand accounts of the horrors of war and the elation of liberation. These were among the most meaningful experiences of the trip for Grace, whose great-grandfather, a World War II chaplain, landed on the Normandy beaches in 1944. “Hearing the testimonies of people who lived through the German occupation and experienced the Allied landings gave me a new perspective and a deeper appreciation for the suffering endured by the French citizens,” she reflected. She was especially grateful to the people who opened their homes to the group for receptions and student homestays, as these opportunities gave her a chance to truly experience French culture and hospitality.
The travelers also met with local government officials and participated in memorial ceremonies honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and justice. “The mayors of several towns expressed how honored they were to welcome us, and they were pleased that our students were learning how their great-grandparents’ generation had fought so bravely for a country that wasn’t even theirs,” Mr. Wenner observed. “American flags flew everywhere—the Normans are grateful to this day for the sacrifices the Allies made for their freedom. The more we saw, the more real it became for each of us.”
Aidan, whose great-grandmother served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, was deeply impressed by the local citizens’ lasting gratitude for American soldiers’ sacrifices. Both he and Mr. Wenner counted their final day’s visit to Omaha Beach as the trip’s most moving experience. “It was amazing to stand on the beach where so many men gave their lives for freedom,” Aidan said. “The German bunkers are still there, and I could envision the men and the guns coming across,” Mr. Wenner added. “It was a surreal and especially poignant moment.”
Grace noted that she would definitely recommend the Normandy Allies trip to anyone who enjoys history or cultural experiences. “Visiting France with Normandy Allies gave us a glimpse into the culture that we wouldn’t have experienced if we had gone on our own,” she said. “And seeing World War II historical sites firsthand gave us an understanding of war and sacrifice that cannot be taught in a classroom.”
Editor’s note: The July group leaders were Marsha Smith, Peter Combee, and Charles Frick. In addition to the three from Blair, participants included students from New York and Illinois (Annie Bryson, Chloe Erdle, Brooke Lamar, Matthew Rodenhouse, and Jamisen Swinney), and adults from Illinois, New York, North Carolina, (Rich Kelly, Chris Lencioni, Steven Scott, Donna & Jim Wielgolewski). In the photos below, the group participates in a wreath-laying at the Wall of the Missing in the Brittany American Cemetery, scales the heights at Omaha Beach, students descend into a tobruk at Longues s/mer, and all enjoy ice cream in Arromanches!
A few comments from our July 2017 Normandy Allies participants
We asked each person to respond to two questions: Has the trip increased your knowledge of the Normandy Landings? and What was most significant and/or meaningful to you about the International Experience?
I learned a whole lot about the airborne jumps and the beach landings themselves. Specifically, how the flooding of the Airborne’s jump area shaped a lot of the engagements that were fought. Also with the Omaha landings, I could really begin to understand how there were so many casualties on the beach and how it could have been much worse if the Navy hadn’t risked their own safety to provide covering fire well within the range of enemy batteries.
Most meaningful: Getting to experience the French culture and bond with/meet new people specifically in Bayeux. Being able to walk around and explore Bayeux was awesome! Everyone was super friendly and I will definitely be returning at some point in the future.
-MR, student, NY
There were many aspects of the Landings that were very vague to me at the start of the trip. I was never aware of how there were five different beaches of all the landings of Normandy which were (for the most part) divided between Allied forces such as the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, etc. Seeing how dramatic the difference is between low tide and high tide and how the geographic conditions impacted both the Germans and the Allies is an experience you will never be able to learn in a classroom.
Most meaningful: On this trip, I was very happy that I was able to experience all the history of Normandy in addition to also being able to enjoy the cultural experience of the trip. Because this was my first trip to Europe, I did not know what to expect. The fact that I was able to visit all the beaches, memorials, cemeteries, museums, etc., and also explore the town of Bayeux at night, made it possible for me to make the most of this trip. And lastly, being able to spend a week with the host families exposed me to French culture and customs. The diversity of the trip was by far the most significant part to me. I got to do/see everything all in one trip.
-CE, student, NY
Most meaningful: The intimate gatherings with survivors and hearing their stories added immense depth and realism to something so massive and important. Their voices layered in the human cost of the war and made it seem real. These events should always be a component to the trip.
Any tour can take you to the beaches and museums, but to attend a luncheon and listen to survivors recount their very personal experiences or to take part in a ceremony to honor the fallen, these experiences made the war palpable. It changed from facts on a page about soldiers coming on the beach to hearing the emotion in the voice of a survivor who lived 500 meters from the beach and the knock on the door he heard from the first American he ever met. These personal accounts from those who were there cannot help but boil down a massive military operation down to a personal and individual level.
-TW, Associate Dean, NJ
Significantly increased my understanding: Seeing the width and depth of the beaches and the AO (Area of Operations) beyond the beaches has given me a greater appreciation of the enormity of the operation. Likewise, seeing the terrain has provided a much better understanding of the difficulties the units faced – much more than just reading alone.
Most meaningful: In addition to physically seeing the area and the terrain, meeting local residents, hearing the stories of their families and seeing how much the Landings mean to them was special.
-SS, Retired Brigadier General, NC
I came to Europe with a journal and an open heart to new and exciting things. I fully believed that I should immerse myself in the French culture.
This trip to Normandy has opened my eyes to the unbelievable and immaculate detail going into every little detail, all the cogs of the different operations going at the right time, to make this big, beautiful plan into action to destroy the scorn of Nazism and liberate the tired masses of Europe, the Europeans, tired of years of war, pain and loss. All these men to risk their lives to liberate those they may never meet.
Most meaningful: We need to remind those few left from those dark times that we have not forgotten them, that we the youth of America, the grand-kids of their liberators, have learned from history and will not bring a man with a dark dream into power, and will strike forcefully at those who oppose peace, liberty and freedom.
-JS, student, IL