After doing some intense research my Mom found Ellwood Von Seebold, a highly praised Normandy tour guide. Again, we were not quite sure what to expect, but were very happy when a sharp looking man with an English accent approached us and introduced himself as Ellwood.
The tour began in Ellwood’s home. He began by asking us why we wanted to tour Normandy. It was interesting to learn that two of the other people in our group had father’s that participated in the Normandy invasion. All of us agreed that we wanted to learn more about the tremendous sacrifice made by thousands of young soldiers. Throughout the day there were many things that I was surprised to learn. The first of which is that I was surprised to learn how many British and Canadian soldiers were involved in the invasion. It was fascinating to learn about the immense strategizing and planning that took place before the invasion. However, as Ellwood explained how the invasion was actually carried out, it was remarkable to learn how much was left up to or affected by chance. After priming us with the geographic and strategic information Ellwood took us to the Airborne Museum.
At this museum we learned about the role of the paratroopers in the invasion. The courage of these men cannot be overstated. They were loaded into planes with over 200 pounds of gear and dropped off into unknown territory in the dead of night. The German’s anticipated the paratroopers and had been flooding the fields that they suspected would act as “drop zones” for weeks. Sadly, American intelligence failed to realize the extent of the flooding and as consequence hundreds of soldiers drowned due to their heavy gear upon reaching their drop zone. Those who survived were scattered all over the coast, many were miles away from their intended drop zone. However, these men were known for their incredible self-reliance and were able to regroup and fight successfully.
One of the most famous paratroopers is John Steele. John Steele was an American paratrooper who got caught on the steeple of the St. Maire Eglise church. He hung here for hours, within shooting range of the Germans. He was saved by an incredible act of bravery of two other American soldiers.
Each Army unit had a specific badge. Upon studying the badges, one of our group members recognized his father’s badge. He learned that his father was a glider pilot (the pilot’s who dropped the paratroopers). He had never known the details of his father’s involvement because like many other men his father refused to speak about the war after he returned. It was really special to witness someone learning about their own family and it helped make the tour so personal and special.
After a quick lunch at Ellwood’s cafe we loaded into his van to go see Utah, Omaha, and Pointe du Hoc beaches. At each beach, Ellwood explained the logistics behind the landing and added a personal story about one outstanding soldier. Normally cold, rainy, and windy weather is not ideal touring conditions, but it was close to the conditions that the soldiers faced and enhanced our appreciation of the events.
The photo below shows the craters left behind by all the shells. What used to be flat coast line is covered with 12-15 foot deep craters. One cannot imagine the chaos the soldiers faced as they attempted to scale the steep cliffs of the sea wall.
Our tour concluded with a visit to the American Cemetery. Beautiful white crosses and stars of David fill the lawn. I was surprised to learn that despite the vast amount of headstones, this cemetery represents only 39% of the American casualties at Normandy. The rest of the soldiers were buried in the United States at their families’ request. The cemetery is peaceful, poignant, and powerful.
This day made me feel so incredibly proud to be an American and appreciative of the sacrifice that so many people made that day. While abroad, I wasn’t always “proud” to be an American; it was part of my identity that I needed to minimize. In Normandy, I felt like I could fully embrace my nation and our shared past.
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices”
-President Harry S. Truman