Military Strategy and the Reality of War
Students prepared for their trip to France and Belgium by reading D-Day by Stephen Ambrose and large selections of Danny Parker’s book on the Battle of the Bulge, as well as by taking some online quizzes covering the material. Knowledge in hand, they departed on June 8, took the red-eye and arrived in Paris first thing the next morning. Without any sleep, they drove straight to Normandy and started the tour. “That first day,” said Andrew, “we went 34 hours without sleep.”
Three days in Normandy were followed by a day-long trip to Bastogne, Belgium, three days in Belgium, and then a day and two nights in Paris before they flew back. Andrew, who is a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and served in Desert Storm, was particularly suited to lead the trip.
The group visited battle sites in France and Belgium as well as museums, memorials and cemeteries — American, British, Canadian and German. They explored the sites of the Merville Battery, Pegasus Bridge and Pointe du Hoc, where they stood in the craters that still remain. They saw the stained glass windows at the church in Ste. Mere Eglise, showing the Virgin Mary as well as paratroopers coming down from the sky. They saw the famous hedgerows. They walked the beaches — Juno, Utah and Omaha — and discussed the challenges of defending or attacking these positions, how difficult amphibious landings were in the face of strategically positioned German machine guns.
Most of the group were rising seniors. One student actually delayed his graduation until August to go on this trip. Another student, David Gaffney, brought the perspective of an Iraq combat veteran whose grandfather had fought in WWII and landed at Omaha Beach. In the journal he wrote during the trip, he imagined himself in the shoes of the soldiers who had fought these battles.
Clemson students walk along the hallowed ground of Omaha Beach at low tide.
“Omaha Beach at the low tide seemed like a huge amount of open territory to have to cover under gunfire,” Gaffney wrote. “Under direct fire and soaking wet would make it all the more difficult … I would be so mad watching my friends die that I would be in an adrenaline rage and charge in, just like the plaques we read for heroes today. They were not looking to be heroes; they wanted to stop the Germans from killing their friends, plain and simple. I have seen this firsthand, and the emotion in someone after a battle would change the opinion of who they are. Those heroes would feel pretty empty inside at some point because their friends died.”
Madison Martin, on the other hand, found herself thinking about the young alumnus she had researched, 1st Lt. James M. (Mack) Harris ’35, who shared her hometown of Fort Mill. Harris had married and become a teacher before joining the army in 1942. His son, James M. Harris Jr., was born three days before Harris’ family was notified of his death.
Martin had been both anticipating and anxious about the visit to Omaha Beach, having learned that “her soldier” had landed there on D-Day and died just eight days later.
“What was he thinking when he survived the initial invasion? Was he focused on the task at hand? Was he in awe that he survived? What was he seeing in this terrain just over the sand dune, in comparison to what was before me?” she wrote in a reflection paper about the trip. “These were the questions I would not have asked myself without having to research a soldier and put a place with a name, a face and a person.”
“I told students before we went over,” Andrew said, “you can read about Omaha Beach, about the D-Day landings. You can watch ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘The Longest Day.’ But until you actually stand on that beach and realize you are standing on ground that was soaked by the blood of American soldiers, and you look up at those bluffs and see the German gun positions that could sweep up and down the beach, you really can’t fully grasp it.”
He paused. “All of the students commented that it was something very powerful emotionally — even spiritually — standing there on that beach.”
Rows of Crosses and Stars
In visits to cemeteries and memorials, students were able to consider how different countries and different cultures memorialize their dead. In the Normandy American cemetery, “every cross or Star of David is carefully cared for, and the individual is recognized,” said Andrew. “Every single one is immaculately kept, and there are several feet between each grave.”
Laura Fuller delivers her oral report on 1st Lt. William S. Gaillard Jr., Clemson Class of 1940.
And each grave of an American soldier faces back toward America.
In the equally pristine British cemeteries, graves of soldiers faced each other, and each was etched with the soldier’s unit insignia or symbol, as well as a personal message determined by the family. Flowers are planted beneath each marker.
In the German cemetery, students found a much more sober atmosphere focused on the tragedy of war and the importance of peace. Gravestones were flat on the ground, “and no German soldier is buried alone,” said Andrew. “Every grave has at least two, maybe three or more German soldiers in it.” The students found that interesting, Andrew said. They understood the logic in it, “but in the same way they recognized that from an American point of view, it seemed almost disrespectful for every soldier not to have his own grave.”
As they visited the American cemeteries, the students stood at the gravestones and shared information about the lives of the alumni they had been assigned. They rubbed sand from Omaha Beach onto the names on the markers, both cleaning them and marking them as recently visited. Seeing the rows and rows of crosses and stars and recognizing the names etched into the marble had a profound affect. “I was just hoping to give a good presentation for a good grade,” said Gaffney, who presented at Normandy Cemetery. “Then the reality hit as I entered the grounds that these were all people who all had families and lives before coming here.”
The visit to the cemetery in Ardennes was particularly poignant. The students were the only people there when the cemetery officially closed at 4:30 in the afternoon. They stood at attention for the playing of Taps, and then two of the Clemson students were allowed to be the ones to lower the American flag, fold it and officially present it back to the superintendent.
“It was an unforgettable experience for all of us,” said Andrew.