Turning forty years old was far less traumatic than I expected. The gray hair was nothing new. The sore back had probably less to do with age than it did with my small children/battering rams. I did find myself grumbling almost daily about the listless "kids" in my office, who are actually in their early 30s. Those signs of aging aside, I still felt, in spirit, like a man of 39. Young enough to know that I could do almost anything; old and wise enough to actually do it. And so, in a carpe diem moment, before my growing children could deplete whatever free will and time I had left, I decided to act on a lifetime wish: I set out for the northern coast of France, alone, to journey through the villages, dairy farms and infamous hedgerows of Normandy.
My trip began shortly after the 66th anniversary of the pivotal Allied landings on those legendary beaches. As time has passed, my interest in World War II has evolved from a boyhood passion to something much deeper. Several years ago, as an aide to a U.S. Senator, I was fortunate to work closely with a number of veterans' service and advocacy organizations. Unsurprisingly, the World War II guys that I got to know, most of who have since passed on, will always hold a special place in my heart. They served at the most critical of times, and even 60 years later, these old soldiers were making a lasting impression on me. I will never forget one Navy veteran who, at the time of Pearl Harbor, was an 18-year old back-seater on a two-man Dauntless dive bomber off the USS Enterprise. His plane was eventually shot down over the Pacific, both he and his pilot captured by the enemy. They were sent to a Japanese slave labor camp, where he lost an eye when he was sharpening a tool and a chunk of rock ripped through his socket. Suffice it to say, my life experiences at the ages of 18 and 19, and those of my peers, were somewhat different.
Anyone who has visited a place such as Gettysburg understands what a stimulating and visual experience a battlefield is. Standing on Omaha Beach, I thought about those American soldiers who were fortunate to make it out of their landing crafts alive. They waded through more than 100 yards of frigid, neck-deep water, getting raked by sweeping machine gun fire from above. Most who made it off the beach and to the shingle embankment beneath the German bunkers were either wounded, suffering from hypothermia, or paralyzed with fear and shock. For hours they lay there, finding what protection they could, the noise of heavy weapons deafening, the men shivering uncontrollably, getting picked off one-by-one with mortar shells and heavy machine gun fire. And yet an extraordinary few eventually found the strength and courage to move forward and began moving up the bluffs and against the German defenders. Would I have had the nerve, just out of high school, to follow my platoon sergeant into that hurricane of bullets and shrapnel? Would I have had the daring of those Rangers that scaled the 100-foot cliffs of Pointe de Hoc, only to face relentless counterattacks from the German defenders? To my fortune, I will never know. But I can pay tribute to those that did.
So for three full days, I trekked all over Normandy. I visited not only the beaches, but the cemeteries, museums and myriad landmarks. The cemeteries were immaculate and peaceful, possessing a serenity that haunts the Normandy of 66 years later. It was on my flight home from Paris, as I reflected on those three days, when I realized that more had transpired than a simple homage to our soldiers. For thirty nine years, I thought I knew about World War II, considering myself a veritable scholar. Yet only now, in my fortieth year, do I realize the full breadth of my ignorance.
Mine had always been such a singular perspective -- thinking of how the war affected the Americans who served, how the war changed America, and how the war impacted my life as I know it today. Normandy was without question a shining moment for America's fighting men. But it represents so much more than the beginning of the end for the German occupation of Europe. Like the rest of France, civilians in Normandy had endured four long years of repressive and brutal occupation by the Germans. Those Normans prayed day and night for the Allies to land on their shores and liberate them from the Wehrmacht, the SS and the Gestapo. But I was stunned when I first learned that during the pre-dawn bombardment by the Allies of the German defensive positions on D-Day, the inhabitants of Normandy who lost their lives outnumbered the Americans who fell on Omaha Beach. In the days and weeks that followed the invasion, nearly 20,000 civilians would perish. That is something that has never been captured in any of those boyhood movies I have always revered, nor something that is commonly known in the U.S.
What I had failed to appreciate throughout my lifetime was the toll war takes on those who live with its despair and deprivation day after day, year after year. This does not diminish by any measure the incredible service and sacrifice of the millions of Americans who contributed to the war effort, both those in uniform and those at home. Most Americans had a father, a son or a brother in the war, and there was a good chance he would come home wounded, or not at all. Food, gasoline and other valuable commodities were rationed. Hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers, sailors and Marines would come home beset with deep and lasting physical and psychological scars.
Yet this country has not been visited by modern warfare in all of its inhumanity and devastation. That is one horror we have been spared. America was inoculated throughout the 20th Century from the nightmare that so many others endured. Our cities remain unscathed by artillery shells, mortar rounds, landmines and machine gun bullets. In contrast, the impact of World War II on Europe was staggering. Towns and villages that had stood for centuries were leveled. Countless atrocities against soldiers and civilians alike. Rampant and unchecked rape and crime. And this went on for nearly six agonizing years.
The German war machine was truly horrific. As his armies swept across Europe, Hitler not only sought to defeat and subjugate "lesser" countries like Poland, but to slaughter or enslave its inhabitants, and obliterate every village, museum, and historical artifact that came within reach of the SS. The German march to Moscow was marked by atrocity after atrocity against the Russian population. It was the Germans who first directed immense bombing raids against civilian population centers. And of course, Hitler's "final solution".
Yet Germany itself would not be spared from the wreckage and cruelty that it had sowed. All Germans, including both those who embraced the Nazi movement and those who were appalled by it, would pay dearly for the crimes of their soldiers, and the amorality of their fanatical leaders. Virtually every German city would eventually be reduced to rubble and ashes. The Russians, in a retaliatory rage that had been simmering for years, swept through Germany in 1945 with scorched Earth tactics, including the mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war, and the systemic rape of both daughters and mothers, discriminating against no one. No, the Germans suffered as well.
War is hell, it is said. It is a hell that I hope my children never experience, but one that I hope all of us, particularly those who think of war as some distant event; or reduce it to "patriotic" talking points, can fully comprehend.
My trip to Normandy was an exhilarating experience. I stood on the same ground as an American 101st Airborne paratrooper. And a Wehrmacht Panzergrenadier. And a Norman dairy farmer. I visited the American and German cemeteries where more than 30,000 men are buried. I drank wine with villagers whose parents and grandparents were in the French Résistance, or just struggled to survive those terrifying years. Every town, village and family in Normandy has a story, stories that need to be remembered. And there are Normandies all over Europe, and all over the world. And for me, after spending just a few short days on the hallowed ground, I feel significantly more educated at 40 than I ever was at 39.
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