Beginning in London, the group visited Winston Churchill’s war rooms and spent two days touring the city. Next, they woke early on the morning of June 5 and traveled to Normandy, France, by way of Portsmouth, England, where many of the soldiers who stormed the beaches on D-Day disembarked.
Unbeknownst to the students, the tour guide agency, EF College Tours, that planned the trip secured an exclusive, personal invitation from Presidents Barack Obama and Francois Hollande of France to attend the June 6 D-Day ceremony at the American cemetery on Omaha Beach. Positioned within 50 yards of the speaking presidents, Dr. Bronson Long, history professor and director of the study abroad program, said the group was impressed by the moving celebration.
“The ceremonies were enormous, with 51 heads of state in attendance,” Long said. “Both presidents gave good speeches and they did what they should have, which was not to inject their own political agendas into it per se, but to honor the men who fought there and died.
“I was deeply moved by President Hollande of France when he said, ‘The American soldiers buried here in France are greatly respected for what they did and the sacrifice they made to free France from Nazism. We strive to treat the graves of these men as if they were our own sons.’”
Following the ceremony, a 21-gun salute rang out while jets flew overhead in the missing man formation. The sound of “Taps” hung heavy in the air as Annie Hill, GHC student, contemplated the gravity of the events of D-Day.
“It seemed as if time stood still and we were back in the moment,” Hill said. “The emotions of it all flooded me. These young men gave up so much to fight for our country and to liberate France. Some of them even lied about their age so they could join the fight. They were so determined and discounted fear. Many people do not understand their sacrifice. In our group, we saw it from a new perspective and we all came home different people.”
One of the most profound moments for Long was at the graves of the fallen Americans.
“I was walking with a student of mine and found a grave of two famous men buried beside each other,” Long said. “One is Quentin Roosevelt, who is the son of President Teddy Roosevelt. He was an aviator killed in the first World War and buried in France. The second was his brother, Teddy Roosevelt Jr., who was a general in the American army during World War II and he participated in the landing on D-Day. He was the only American general who led troops onto the beaches. Generals are typically not involved in the actual combat. He was in his 50s and died of a heart attack a month after the landing. The younger one, who died in the first World War, was not originally buried there but was later moved to be beside his brother. Teddy Roosevelt Jr. won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service during the war.
“The student and I talked about the graves and took photos and proceeded to walk on. Then we met a veteran who was looking for the grave of his general. He asked if we could help him find the grave and it turned out to be Teddy Roosevelt Jr. “We had the honor of taking this veteran, who was in his late 80s, to the gravesite of his leader. He told us about his experience and that to me was really unique. Even as a history professor, I have never had anything like that happen.”
Hill remembered that as she walked through the cemetery, it was “dead quiet” with the only sound coming from waves crashing against the beach.
“Seeing the graves was very humbling. I remembered that I have a family member, a distant cousin, Garfield Tucker, who died on that beach. It was kind of neat to know that a little part of me was there.”
Hill wants to pursue a career in international affairs and hopes to be a diplomat to the Middle East. She said the experience gave her a foretaste of the diplomatic life. “Our group was the only one who was allowed to attend the American ceremonies. Most of the other groups were going to the Canadian ceremonies. Somehow our tour agency got invitations for us.
“First, our bus was searched at a British police checkpoint and then we had a motorcycle escort to the ceremony. As we drove by all the adjoining streets, there were police officers who stopped traffic. We found out in the middle of the ride that we were on the diplomats’ route. That was very special for me. I was overcome by emotion by the events of the whole day.”
Long said he believed the trip offered the students the chance to experience life outside of their own culture and to see how the war affected other parts of the world. “It was a vastly different experience from reading through the many documents that detail what actually took place. Getting your hands wet as opposed to the detached, dry scholarly work of explaining what happened. For our students, it changed their perspective. Many of them had not really been abroad before,” he said. “We, often as Americans, focus on the American experience during the war, but it was good for our students to see the suffering and experience of other nations.”
Hill, who is a political science major, said this will be a story she will tell her children and grandchildren. “This was the trip of a lifetime. We did not just attend the D-Day ceremony and celebrate history. We became part of history.”