Day 8-Why We Remember the What
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to have visited a number of powerful historical places where world-altering events took place, and to the cities where the powerful made the decisions that produced them. I’ve walked the streets of Washington, DC, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Moscow , and visited historical sites so famous they are known just by their names--Pearl Harbor, Bastogne, Auschwitz.
And Omaha Beach.
As evocative a name as there is in the history of the Second World War, Omaha Beach witnessed the fiercest fighting on D-Day, and a full one-quarter of the Allied casualties that day came along that five-mile stretch of sand. Some of the most famous photographs from the war were taken on Omaha Beach, where the distance between the men debarking from their landing craft and the entrenched German lines is readily--and frighteningly--obvious. The first time I visited Omaha Beach, way back in 2000 with my buddy Seth, we walked all the way out to the water’s edge--our guide had timed our arrival to match the tide level when the troops first splashed ashore--and turned back to look at the hillsides, where the remains of German pillboxes, bunkers, and other defensive fortifications were still visible to the naked eye. I had one dominating thought at the sight and voiced it to Seth:
“How the hell did anyone get off this beach alive?”
Of course, there are very good answers to that question, but such was the enormity of my emotions on that first visit, standing on such a pivotal place in history, where so many young men had died for a singular objective whose importance was never in doubt then or since. Most of the young men who died there have been laid to rest at the top of the dunes along the eastern end of Omaha Beach--the site of the American Cemetery, built where American troops first breached Omaha’s portion of the Atlantic Wall. Though the cemetery is the final resting place for American soldiers who died in the entire two-month long Normandy campaign, the date of June 6, 1944 appears with somber regularity on the white crosses and Stars of David that stand in perfect rows within that pristine place of remembrance.
Our visit to Omaha Beach on this occasion, the day after the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, impacted me differently but just as deeply, as my first visit nineteen years earlier. Back then, I wasn’t too many years older than the men who’d fought their way across that beach, behind it, and over it. This many years later, though, amidst my own arriving middle-age, was focused more on the fact that the men who died never got to experience the fullness of life--joyous discoveries, unexpected blessings, and the inevitable vicissitudes of hard knocks, profound losses, failure, and simple unfairness. They never had the opportunities for growth and change that come with having lived a longer life. They gave that all up for themselves in order that others might have the chance to experience life in those ways and for that long. It’s the very definition of sacrifice, and to see it on such stark display by the thousands at the American Cemetery sears the reality of war--its destructiveness, its pain, and yes, its grim necessity in this case--into the psyche and the heart in equal measure. At least for me it did.
When I and the rest of the VFT crew arrived at Omaha Beach, I felt the weight of it all land hard on me again. The others did, too, even though I was the only one who’d been there previously. I purposefully didn’t say much to the others, or give them anything but the basics about the locations at the Cemetery and down along the beaches. They needed to experience it all for themselves, and I didn’t want to let my own perceptions and experiences unduly influence their own thoughts and feelings. The night before over dinner, then again after breakfast that morning, I went over the historical basics of Omaha Beach on D-Day and the larger Normandy campaign that followed. Beyond that, I stayed silent until we had turned on the livestream for the day.
We parked just outside the Cemetery and immediately came upon a bagpipe group playing, which set the tone for the entire day. We ventured down the slopes to the beach, going over and through the remains of several German gun emplacements. Their vantage point was as you’d expect--a clear, open line of fire in multiple directions down onto the beach. The crowds weren’t too thick, surprisingly, so by the time we made it down to the beach we were largely free to roam the open spaces and be alone with our thoughts.
For the first time on the entire VFT, and completely by accident, we all ended up taking solitary walks down Omaha Beach from east to west, covering the length of the Cemetery up on the ridgeline and well beyond it. Das and Saber walked ahead together, talking on the livestream, while the rest of us ended up taking our time behind them. I paused often to reach down into the sand, to feel the water, to lift and drop the stones and pebbles that had washed in with the tide. I spent a lot of time looking back at the bluffs, imagining how difficult it must have been to run through the wet, thick sand--it felt like walking through warm peanut butter--laden with gear, watching their friends die, all while getting to the dunes in front of the German defenses, then fighting over the top of those under withering fire and then crossing marshy spots before reaching the bunkers. Then it was fighting uphill through heavy defended gullies until cresting the bluffs. Then, fighting into and clearing each bunker of the enemy.
The scenes must have been unimaginable then, and certainly were for us as well. Such is the nature of sites such as Omaha Beach--where monumental things happened that no one at the time or since could ever experience or recreate fully. But what is known about them--and remembered--is more than enough to drive the point home:
Many people died here. And it really mattered. To so many people then and since.
Walking the beach in solitude, my emotional bandwidth maxed out. Sadness predominated at the deaths of so many, all of whom left behind broken-hearted loved ones whose lives would never be the same. Then came anger, specifically at the Nazis for doing all they did and for who they were, for making the D-Day invasion necessary in the first place. The history of the war has been covered in such detail, from so many directions, for good reason--it is the greatest conflagration in human history and, hopefully, will stay that way. I’ve always believed that the war was a necessity to fight because of Nazi aggression and aims, and I also believe it should serve as a clear warning; the Second World War should remain the closest humanity ever gets to wholesale destruction, the thinnest our margin of error should ever be.
The costs paid at Omaha Beach illustrate this vividly. It’s not enough for me that the sacrifices those soldiers made were “not in vain” because the Allies ended up winning the war; I want their losses to continue to be felt and valued so deeply that they remind us of where we should not go again, what we should and should not risk, and when we should stand up against tyranny before it inflames everything around us. The deaths that day shouldn’t be temporal in their importance--they should serve as an eternal lesson, warning, reminder, and plea for sanity. It may be naive to hope for that in perpetuity, but it seems to me that this should be our loftiest--and most doggedly pursued--goal nonetheless. The “how best to do it” and the constant debates about when war is justified (if ever, to some minds) are complicated and necessary, but they can all happen under that one unifying standard, a point of agreement that most of us can agree on:
That was my overarching thought walking on Omaha Beach on June 7, 2019.
When we all caught up with Das and Saber, we worked our way back towards the American Cemetery along the marshes at the base of the old German defense line. We broke out onto the dunes in front of the Cemetery and noted how tired our legs became trudging through it. We became even more fatigued climbing the path up to the Cemetery. When we reached the top, we paused at the entrance to the Cemetery and went over the plan we’d made weeks before for this moment.
Though we had been granted rare permission to livestream inside the Cemetery, we wouldn’t say a word during our broadcast there, nor would we interact with Chat. It wouldn’t have been right to talk over the experiences of others in the Cemetery, or to try to convey with words things that can’t really be captured fully by them. We informed Chat of our plan, then joined the other visitors filing into the Cemetery.
Our silence--and Chat’s--lasted forty-five minutes.
Das and Saber led the way through rows and rows of white, Lasa marble headstones, filming silently. The entire cemetery is just over seventeen acres in size, so it takes a while to walk even one length of the central burial area. The rest of us followed behind, spread out again on our own. By the time we all reached the far western end of the cemetery, tears flowed freely. The sheer number of gravestones is overwhelming--just shy of 9400 of them. Each lists name, rank, home state, date of death and its location. Thirty-seven graves contain unknown remains, their names listed as “known only to God.” In the center of the grounds stands a massive wall listing the thousands of men who went missing during the campaign, their final fates and resting places unknown. Just like America itself, the names cover a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and come from practically every part of American life--urban, rural, rich, poor, neither. All were someone’s son, many were brothers and fathers and uncles. All were friends to many at home, and to each other within their individual units. And all continue to serve today as a reminder of why life is so precious, why sacrifices like theirs should not be asked for lightly, and why those of us who live beyond them should do all we can to prevent more sons, fathers, brothers, and friends from being killed in combat. Or, if they are, that they did so for the best possible reasons, and only after all other reasonable options were exhausted.
The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach is just one of dozens of national cemeteries throughout Normandy, most dedicated to fallen soldiers from individual nations, including Germany (which surprises people regularly). When one “does the math” after seeing nearly 10,000 gravestones in just the American Cemetery, the mind boggles at the sheer number of men killed in Normandy. When we re-opened our conversations with Chat, a number of viewers commented that these costs had never been presented to them so vividly. One longtime gamer of history-based video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield even remarked that it was sobering beyond words to see that, unlike in games where you have multiple “lives” that allow you to kill Bad Guys in perpetuity no matter the personal cost (because there isn’t any), the reality and meaning of death in combat had never been made clearer to him. Other viewers echoed the sentiment. Such realizations are why I love studying and teaching history, as it can elucidate the Things That Really Matter powerfully and memorably, in ways that touch the soul and leave permanent marks upon it.
The comments from Chat continued on through the day as we explored other areas of Omaha Beach. At one point, we walked up from the beach to a bluff above a monument to one of the infantry divisions that fought that day, and a viewer saw that we were standing in the same spot where a famous photograph from D-Day was taken. Within minutes--literally--viewers had superimposed portions of that famous photograph over our own (see it below). Our jaws dropped. It was perhaps the most powerful moment among so many during the VFT where we felt we were actually connected with the past, as if it were just behind a curtain we could almost peel back to see into the past. A copy of that picture now sits framed on my writing desk--it says a million things without using any words at all.
The entire day at Omaha Beach was hot and muggy, and tiring both physically and emotionally. We’d brought some snacks along, but those had been exhausted before the lunch hour. After hours of livestream coverage, we began to wind down during the late afternoon. I spied a snack bar down in a small hamlet near the water, so we headed there to gather our thoughts, steady our emotions, and get some much needed sustenance. Nothing remotely healthy was consumed by any of us--European chocolates and coffees are just too good--but we were grateful for all of it. We even found a few points of levity that helped us digest the day a bit more easily. At one point, two P-51 Mustangs roared over the beach at low altitude; Das nearly knocked over our table in excitement jumping up to film them. What was additionally funny about it was about eight hundred viewers saw it happen. Yep, we live streamed Snack Time (the moderators back in the States even put up “Snack Time” as our location. Hilarious!) and hundreds of people found it interesting enough to keep watching.
Chat is the best.
After about an hour of junk food, we ventured out onto Omaha Beach for one final time as we waited for Kathryn and Tim to pick us up. We recapped the day for our viewers as best we could, using the best words we could (none of which were quite enough to capture it). And then, it started raining. Soon, it was pouring. Low clouds and sheets of rain obscured the tops of the bluffs where the Cemetery stands, where so many years ago brave men--most of them barely old enough to be considered men--fought their way through terrifying gunfire to breach the German lines, and thus begin the long Allied march eastward that would eventually end the war. We stood out on the beach under the torrents of rain, getting soaked to the skin, trying to memorize every detail we could of that important place. As we packed everything in, knowing that we’d seen things we’d never forget and had shared them with thousands around the world, we also realized that we had come to the end of our last full day of the Virtual Field Trip. The next day we’d take a few hours in the morning to stream something, then it was back to Paris for our bullet train back to London.
On our drive back to Bayeux, we wondered aloud what possible encore there could be to the day we’d just had. All of us doubted we could find any worthwhile coda. We even toyed with the idea of just calling it right then and there and end the VFT on the highest--and most poignant--of notes. In the end, though, we decided we’d figure out something to stream.
As it would turn out, we made the right decision. The next day, we’d stumble upon (okay, Julia did) the best coda possible to the VFT. After a day honoring the fallen, we got the chance to honor the living.
Come back soon to meet him.