An Eye-opening Perspective
After-Action Report: May/June Program
by Mary Stubler
Our group consisted of Team Leaders, Pete Combee and Mary Stubler, seven James Madison University students (Skye Burns, Maggie Hanks, Christian Locke, Kevin Ryan, Holly Schnader, Casey Walker and Ryan Walters), one student from Muhlenberg College (Summer Paris) and two adult travelers, Colleen and Sarah Green from Montana. Six of the students are ROTC.
The time in London was well spent at the Cabinet War Rooms, the Imperial War Museum, and Bletchley Park. Learning about the Enigma machine and the code work done by the unsung heroes at Bletchley Park was fascinating. We left from Portsmouth by ferry to France, after a lunch at the Golden Lion restaurant which Eisenhower and his staff used to frequent.
We had a friendly welcome at the Hotel Churchill in Bayeux. A visit at the Bayeux Tapestry reminded us of the 1000-year history of wars between England and France. The British cemetery in Bayeux has a Latin transcription over the portico which translates as: “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.” The Circular Theater at Arromanches has a wonderful movie about the buildup to, and narrative of, the European front of World War II. After all this we were ready to get to the beaches.
The students’ overall impression of being on Juno, Utah, and Omaha beaches was pretty outstanding. All of them commented on how standing on those beaches brought the history alive to them. One can imagine being chest deep in salt water being shot at. Two of the students actually ran from the water to the land area at Omaha! There was a deep and reverent feeling in all of us.
Pete’s descriptions at each site were excellent! With his maps, his knowledge of the daily wind and water conditions in June 1944, and the movements of each combat unit, he really brought the action to life in front of us. We were also blessed by incredible weather, sunny and warm, which allowed ample time at the beaches, whether to explore the German bunkers or to just sit in reflective silence.
Each student did an excellent job at their Remembrance ceremonies: Ryan Walter and Casey Walker at the Abbaye D’Ardenne, Skye Burns at the 29th Division Monument at Omaha Beach, Summer Paris at the site of the first American Cemetery, Kevin Ryan at the First Division Monument (Omaha Beach), and Holly Schnader at rue Captain Carter. Charles deMaupeou gave us a great tour of the Chateau de Colombières including a history of the Ritchie Boys, who were stationed at the Chateau. Again, this was a little-known fact to many of us and very fascinating. He had also erected a monument to LTC Kermit Miller, commemorating the marshland battle on this property. This showed us again how much the Normans appreciated the Allies and how they still keep the memory alive.
On Thursday June 6, at the Wall of Remembrance in Saint-Lô, Colleen and Sarah Green unveiled the plaque to John O’Neil. Our Norman friends, led by Denis Lesage, presented us with a beautiful ceremony complete with flag raising by Holly and Skye and presentations by local dignitaries. Denis also arranged for our group to ride in vintage jeeps and ambulances, which was a great experience. There were several other ceremonies that day which we were invited to attend and at each ceremony the Normans made sure our group was front and center. It all added to the dignified remembrance of that day. Lee and Annie Atkinson gave us a delicious luncheon and warm welcome at their home. Michael Yannaghas escorted us to several of the Town Commemorations and gave us very good historical overviews at the Chapel of La Madeleine, the Blanchett Mausoleum, and l’Eglise Notre-Dame.
At each of the cemeteries, Colleville and St. James, we presented the students with soldier visit sheets. This would usually be a soldier from their home state, or with a similar last name. We reminded them that we visit these graves to honor all soldiers, and to quietly be with this one soldier who gave his life for our freedoms as we may be the only person to actually seek this soldier out by name and spend a bit of time with him. After a wreath-laying ceremony at Captain George E. Williams, Jr. grave, uncle of the wreath donors Earl Carlile and Carol Funderburk, we went on to Mont St. Michel.
The next morning Michael Yannaghas gave another enlightening historical overview of the actions at Percy and the bocage areas outside of Saint-Lô. We then left for Paris and to fly home. Each student seemed to get so much out of this trip, with several stating they would go again. Our group bonded with similar interests in history and patriotism. We were constantly reminded, particularly at the Town Commemorations, of just how much the Normans appreciate us, then and now.
Some additional comments from our group:
“Overall it was amazing and life changing and I can’t wait to go back.”
“Professor Combee really does an incredible job – I just want to note that he is exceptional and really makes this trip so well done. This also applies for all the people that welcomed and helped us especially Michael in Saint-Lo.”
“The England/London portion of the trip helped me better understand the British perspective of the War. I thoroughly enjoyed viewing and visiting Bletchley Park.”
“I greatly appreciate the Norman folks and their devotion to the Allied Forces who liberated their villages and country back in 1944.”
“One JMU student told me her feeling of camaraderie had increased greatly after hearing the stories of sacrifice made by Allied soldiers during this historical military campaign. She further added that ‘I would have no problem sacrificing my life to save my comrades in arms.”
“It was a unique experience to have members of the group that had family members who were lost in the war. I liked being able to connect personal stories to the overall information I already knew. It was also eye opening to physically visit the beaches – it really pulls into perspective what the soldiers endured.”
“The most significant part of this experience was seeing the actual scale of the operation. The most meaningful were the visits to multiple cemeteries while in Normandy.”
Additional photos on the Normandy Allies page on Facebook.
We invite you to join us July 15-28, 2018!