Illumination Through the Fog of War

As I start this new journey, and new website to document my travels, I thought it only fitting to re-publish my first travel column. During my junior year at IU, in the spring of 2011, I had the chance to travel to London, Normandy and Paris for the Footsteps of Ernie Pyle course offered by the Indiana University School of Journalism. The course, taught by professor Owen Johnson, allowed us to see parts of Europe devastated by war and since rebuilt, parts that renowned war correspondent Ernie Pyle documented so well. I wrote my column about the day we visited Normandy and strolled along the beaches and visited the cemeteries. The trip, and that day specifically, remains one of the most formative experiences in my life and ignited a fire inside me to see the rest of the world that has not and will not go out.

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London was a breathtaking city, and it broke my heart to leave after just a few days. Paris, the city of love, is sure to make my heart whole again when we arrive Thursday evening. But Wednesday was the day I was most looking forward to on this trip, the day we visited Normandy, the location of the D-Day Invasion June 6, 1944, a day when a broken heart was inevitable.

The first stop of the day was a place called Pointe du Hoc, a cliff roughly four miles up the coast from Omaha Beach. A group of 223 rangers was ordered to take the point, which they were able to do successfully after intense close-quarter fighting and incidental friendly fire. Ninety of those rangers perished in the invasion. A monument juts up from the cliff to honor their bravery.

We arrived early in the morning draped in thick fog. The scene was ominous, with craters about the grounds in every direction. German pillboxes still keep watch over the point, even though the insides of their roofs are charred from American flamethrowers. Through the barbed wire, you can see down the 100 feet of cliff the rangers had to scale, and you can’t help but wonder how the group wasn’t completely destroyed.The wind and the fog made for an uncomfortable atmosphere, something I found entirely appropriate. This place has been maintained as a site for remembrance, and I just don’t think a sunny day would do it justice. The craters and the barbed wire everywhere are tools to help you grasp the fog of war – and today the fog did as well.

Touring Pointe du Hoc could easily occupy an entire day, but we had to move on rather quickly. Our next stop was Omaha Beach, the infamous landing point for many U.S. soldiers on D-Day. The first step on the sand I lost my breath, but unlike many soldiers who lost their lives not much more than two or three steps in, I was able to gather myself and stroll along the beach as I pleased. I tried to picture American troops pouring in with the tide, and the beautiful French countryside acting as an impenetrable death machine.

A lovely seashell was half buried in the sand. I picked it up, dusted it off and pocketed it as a visual reminder of my time there. As I did this, I recalled a column Ernie Pyle wrote about his first walk on the beach. Instead of seashells half buried, Pyle saw the heel of a soldier’s boot still attached to a young man being pulled into the sea by the tide. He also saw a tennis racket that managed to dodge every German bullet thrown its way, and a Bible that he plucked and walked with a few strides. He put the Bible back on the ground, although the owner might well have already met his maker the day before.

The tide rolled over my toes. It was cold but I didn’t mind. I guess it was my way of showing some solidarity. On my way off the beach, I knelt and collected a sample of sand, something I’ll show my grandchildren someday. Before taking my final step off the beach, I thanked all the young men who never did, and those who did so with a weary heart all those many years ago.

As for those who didn’t make it off the beach alive, we met up with them at our next stop – the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. As soon as you enter, you are greeted by a giant statue that, resembling a Greek god, represents the American youth rising from the water in an act of great bravery. Turn around and you can see what reward that bravery brought countless Americans – eternal slumber in a foreign country.

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Row after row are young men, and a few women, cut down well beforetheir time. The uniformity of the white marble headstones is powerful in its enormity. Although it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people buried, there is a special ceremony for visitors to remember a specific loved one. There is a tradition of rubbing sand from the beaches of Normandy onto the name on the stone, contrasting it with the marble. We were privileged to watch this done to the cross of Elizabeth A. Richardson, a Hoosier who has been laid to rest among the soldiers. It is truly one of the most clever and touching things I’ve ever witnessed.

There is also a wall memorializing those never laid to rest, for their bodies were never recovered. Our guide, Helen, told us a chilling story of a veteran who came back to visit on the 50th anniversary of the invasion. This soldier was in charge of burying his fallen comrades the night of June 6. By the next morning, the Germans began firing upon him before he could lay each one to rest. He told Helen in between sobs that he had to kick a couple bodies back into the ocean so the enemy would not get them. He had to live with that burden the rest of his life.

As I stood there on the edge of the cemetery looking out into the sea, with the soldier’s graves at my back, I let the gravity of the moment wash over me. A single tear rolled down my cheek, but was quickly swept away by the breeze coming over the cliffs. It will be years, if ever, that the full importance of what I experienced is clear to me. Right now it is impossible to comprehend the amount of loss, the amount of bravery, love, and brotherhood these men displayed for each other.

It’s moments like this when you begin to realize what human beings are capable of doing to each other, but you see what they can do for each other as well. And at the end of the day, you can’t help but have hope for a better future, and that good men will not stand idly by. If we can accomplish that, then these brave souls will not have died in vain, and in such a way may they live forever.

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