by Lizzie McGinn, Marketing Coordinator
79 years ago, a mix of troops from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada landed on the beaches of Normandy France, beginning an offensive that ultimately led to the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi control. D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944, and is known as history’s largest amphibious assault. 156,000 troops landed on Normandy beaches and over 4,000 soldiers lost their lives in the violence that followed.
I was fortunate enough to spend 8 months living in Cherbourg, Normandy, one of the key cities liberated by American troops in the offensive that followed D-Day. Prior to my trip, D-Day and World War II existed only marginally in my mind. World War II seemed like the far past, on the big screen in Saving Private Ryan and studied in high school history class.
During my travels, I was able to visit Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, and the American cemetery at Colleville. After visiting these historic places, I was astounded by how recent these events were, especially when witnessing the remnants of bunkers or craters made by missiles still marking the Norman landscape. This realization allowed me to develop a new perspective on what the cost of war can look like even decades after the fact, as well as being struck by the need to remember horrific moments in history so we can prevent anything similar from happening in our time. In this spirit, I will share some historic facts as well as my own photos and reflections about these key D-Day sites.
Utah Beach was one of the American landing zones on D-Day, chosen for its proximity to Cherbourg and its strategic location. Troops arrived in the morning, and after some brief fighting with Germans, the beach was secured. The landing was the most successful of the 5 allied landings, with the least amount of casualties of 197.
Utah Beach was sunny and sandy, with replicas of the amphibious tanks lining the shore. Plenty of other Americans were touring the site and a small gift shop offered t-shirts and mementos for tourists. It was a peaceful place, despite its history.
Omaha Beach is a vast stretch of land, 5 miles of sandy beach underneath rocky cliffs. Its mission was essential to the success of D-Day—its location would unite the American landing at Utah and British landing at Gold, forming an allied stretch of beach. In addition, Omaha was home to Pointe Du Hoc, a piece of land jutting out over the beach where the Germans had placed long-range guns that could reach both Utah and Omaha. In the early morning, a group of rangers scaled the cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc and neutralized the guns despite fierce resistance. At the beach, casualties were immense due to the failure of most of the amphibious tanks as well as mines and German gunfire. By the end of the day, the landing was successful, but its human toll was enormous—2,400 American casualties and 1,200 German casualties.
Whereas Utah had been sunny, rainclouds began to gather overhead during my trip to Omaha. Although rain is a very common occurrence in Normandy, the difference in the atmospheres of the two beaches echoed the contrast between the successful landing at Utah, and the bloody struggle at Omaha. A French family with two young children packed up their beach chairs and ran for cover at the local café, a sight that stood in contrast with the brutal story that my tour guide was telling. While watching the family enjoying themselves on what was once blood-soaked beach, my heart was warmed at realizing that the loss of life hadn’t been for nothing—it was so families here and now can live here peacefully and joyfully.
The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer
The American Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer. Over 9,000 American soldiers are buried here, most of whom lost their lives on D-Day or following military operations. In the gardens are the Walls of the Missing, inscribed with around 1,500 names of those missing in action. The grounds are impeccably kept, and the air is solemn with respect for those lost.
Colleville was the most impactful site, more than the museums and replicas on the beaches of Utah and Omaha. The rows upon rows of white crosses for the fallen forces onlookers to fully visualize the human toll of the battles—hearing the number of casualties is one thing, but seeing them is another.
In the United States, the physical scars of World War II are few and far between. The sole site of fighting on American soil, Pearl Harbor, exists hundreds of miles from the mainland—the oil still rises from the remains of the USS Arizona. In contrast, the wounds of the war pervade the spaces of Normandy, France. In the harbor of Cherbourg, the ruins of the fort designed to protect the city remain in the water, an ever-present reminder of the horrors of the recent past.
Today, it is imperative more than ever to remember the past, bear witness to atrocities, and do our utmost best to prevent such things from happening again. In addition, it is important to remember the spirit of international cooperation that led to the success of the D-Day landings—we are all one human people. We must recognize our similarities, empathize, love, and respect each other. I’ve taken these lessons to heart, and hope that on D-Day, we all can find a moment to reflect and honor those who sacrificed their lives fighting for freedom.