Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Reflection on D-Day

US Army troops waded ashore at Omaha Beach in northwestern France on June 6, 1944.

Like most children before Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, I knew very little about D-Day from school. It was pretty much taught to us as a day that began the United States involvement in the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. I had also read a little about it, but was still very ignorant of its significance. It wasn't until college in 1997 that my girlfriend (and future wife) asked if she could see the 1962 film The Longest Day she had rented from Blockbuster in my dorm room (I was one of the few that had a TV and VCR in my room) for a report she was writing that I began to learn more about D-Day. D-Day had been a special day in her family, because her mother's uncle had stormed the beaches of Normandy, survived for about three days after, until he was finally shot dead by Nazis. Still, she did not know much about D-Day herself, so for both of us The Longest Day would be our first major introduction to the subject.

The Longest Day is an excellent film, probably the best of many about D-Day, and it moved me very much, but it still only showed one aspect of D-Day. It did not show the landing on the beaches of Normandy, which is something that became a feature of another D-Day movie called Saving Private Ryan. We saw Saving Private Ryan in a theater in Charlotte, North Carolina the afternoon it was released. It was eye-opening and horrifying, to say the least. You could see everyone in the theater was moved by it. I still remember how after the movie we went next door to Chick Fil A for dinner, and half the seats inside were set up for a Bible Study by a group to talk about the movie they had just seen with us, and they applied what they had seen to their Bible lesson. Inadvertently, we became a part of this Bible Study as we sat to eat.

After Saving Private Ryan, I began to read a little more about D-Day and its aftermath and payed more attention when the subject was talked about in documentaries on TV. Then on September 9, 2001 the first episode of the excellent series Band of Brothers premiered on HBO and we watched it. Interestingly, this was only two days before the tragic events of 9/11. It was as if this series began the engines of boosting our patriotism right before a time when America felt most patriotic and united over a contemporary event we all became a part of. This in short is the process of how I learned about D-Day and its significance.

When the war in Iraq began under President George W. Bush, I very much opposed it, and after that I began to lose a lot of my patriotic feeling. The American government was doing something that was clearly not right, and it was hard to cheer for the country at the time. I never completely lost my patriotic feeling, but it significantly diminished for many years after. Though I voted for Obama as the lesser of two evils, I considered him to be a major let down, and under his administration I saw that the future of the United States was very bleak unless a major shift and change took place. This is one reason I voted for Trump, and the day he won the presidency in late 2015 my patriotic feeling and hope in the country surged back up for the first time in years. It was with such feelings that in October of 2016 I visited Normandy, France.

My mother is a hair stylist who was chosen by the company she works for to represent them during Paris Fashion Week in October of 2016. Seeing it as an opportunity for a family vacation, she invited the family and I went along too. Though we spent all our time together in Paris and its outskirts only, it was my mother's dream, being an immigrant from Greece to the United States and being very patriotic herself, to visit Normandy, which we were all very excited about. So we booked a tour from Paris to spend an entire day on a guided tour to all the major spots in Normandy associated with World War II. The bus ride was over four hours, and pretty much the entire time our two guides set the context for what we were about to see and their significance. It was a very good introduction. Then we finally arrived.

Though I had seen movies and documentaries about D-Day and read about it as well, nothing could match up with being there in person. Standing on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach especially was amazing, and my mind could hardly grasp at how awesome it was to be in a place where such a major historical event occurred. It was extraordinary and unbelievably moving. I was shocked to see how well everything was preserved from that time. You can still see many of the craters from the bombs, and you can walk into the original Nazi bunkers. Saving Private Ryan made the beach look small compared to what it really was. We also visited a museum dedicated to what happened on D-Day, and most importantly we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Words cannot describe the feeling you get when you see the thousands of white crosses perfectly aligned in the cemetery centered around the American flag on a high pole. It is elegant in its simplicity, yet majestic as well. We were there also during a ceremony where they lowered the flag for the evening as they played Taps and shot a gun, and you could barely hold back the tears. Interestingly, among the famous graves shown to us were the graves of the Ryan brothers, since Saving Private Ryan is loosely based on a true story.

After visiting Normandy and spending a day there contemplating on the sacrifices of those soldiers, my patriotic feeling for America was boosted to such a degree, that I am confident it will never go away again, no matter what. I'm pretty sure if I visited there when I was in high school, I would have given serious thought to enlisting in the military. I felt regret that I didn't offer my services to the country when I was younger, but when I graduated high school Bill Clinton was our President and I didn't find him too inspirational. It seems 2016 was the perfect year for me to visit Normandy, and I encourage every American to do so. It was surreal to be in a village in France and feel like you were in America, let alone feel such a surge of American pride. You can tell the locals are very grateful to the United States, to the point where they dedicated Normandy to showcasing America at its best, though there are of course smaller cemeteries dedicated to all the fallen of the allied countries, and we even passed one graveyard finely kept where the German soldiers are buried. And if I could emphasize one thing in all this, it is to plan a trip to Normandy. You will not regret it. D-Day will never be the same.

And see at least both The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan if you have not seen them. Last night I rewatched Saving Private Ryan in a theater for the first time in 21 years, and it still holds up. It was extra special because there were about a dozen former soldiers in the theater sitting in front of me. If you see these films, you will want to visit Normandy, and enter into its reality. And if you want to see what would have happened if D-Day was a failure, then watch the series The Man in the High Castle.

Below are some photos I took in Normandy on my cell phone: