Curator Mike Rowland Re-visits Normandy

I thought it would be appropriate today, on the 67th anniversary of D-Day to hear from someone who has actually visited Normandy. Museum of Aviation Curator Mike Rowland was there a few years back, in preparation for working on our Down to Earth exhibit. Here are his thoughts on that trip:

As I consider the 67th anniversary of the 6 June 1944 D-Day invasion of France, my thoughts wander back to the summer of 2005 when I had the opportunity to visit Normandy. I traveled with a group that included six World War II veterans to visit sites related to the invasion. It was an amazing trip and I want to share a few memories in particular that stand out to me today.

The La Cambe German Cemetery is the largest German military cemetery in Normandy, with over 21,000 soldiers buried there. Most of the headstones I saw were for young men, between 20-25 years old. They were kids when Hitler came to power, and I imagine some of them were soldiers just doing their jobs. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder about those buried there who had embraced Nazi ideology and all its shocking cruelty and oppression.

At the cemetery, a group of French school children gathered around retired Colonel Frank Naughton, a veteran paratrooper who had jumped into Normandy as part of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). One of the kids asked if he ever came close to dying. When he heard the translation, Colonel Naughton said emphatically, “Oh, yes!”

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial has 9,386 graves and is in a beautiful location overlooking Omaha Beach. I really like the inscription on the wall of the chapel in the center of the cemetery: “Their graves are the permanent and visible symbol of their heroic devotion and their sacrifice in the common cause of humanity.” As I walked away from the chapel and passed the long rows of headstones, I distinctly felt and thought “This really was something big.” I was reminded that we must not forget their sacrifice.

After visiting the American Cemetery, I walked down to a German battery overlooking Omaha Beach. The artillery pieces were no longer there and damage from the D-Day fighting was evident, but the positions were still impressive. The guns were designed to fire at an angle down along the beach and water rather than facing straight out toward the English Channel. These positions, working with other emplacements, were able to place a devastating crossfire onto Omaha Beach. In my focus to get pictures and take notes, I didn’t think about the fact that the Germans in those positions killed and wounded many Americans on D-Day. It was only later, on the bus ride back to our hotel in Cherbourg, that I really thought about the desperate life-and-death struggle that took place there.

One of the memorial ceremonies we attended was at Graignes. On 6 June 1944, a group of American paratroopers landed near the village, about 18 miles from their intended drop zone. The citizens of Graignes recovered ammunition containers from the marshes and provided food to the paratroopers, who had decided to defend Graignes in an effort to delay German reinforcements heading towards Carentan. After the Americans beat off two attacks, the German SS troops captured the village and murdered 18 wounded Americans and their doctor and several villagers, including the priests and their two housekeepers. The film Papa Said, “We Should Never Forget”, shot on location in Normandy, tells the story of the invasion through the experiences of a 12-year-old girl and her family. The film can be seen daily at the Museum of Aviation (watch the trailer here).

During the memorial ceremony at Graignes, I didn’t feel any particularly strong emotions until a group of children from Graignes went up and placed a flower arrangement under the plaque with the names of the American soldiers and French civilians who died during and after the battle. Those children, who have grown up in a free country, were living symbols of why the victory in Normandy was worth the price paid for it. It was an honor to be in that place and remember those who died there.

On this anniversary of D-Day, I invite you to visit the Museum of Aviation. Come and see the aircraft and other artifacts that provide a physical record of our nation’s heroes. Come be inspired by the stories of men and women who have given so much.

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