Editor’s Note: FIU alumnus Corey Ryan ’12 wrote this essay after making two study abroad trips to Normandy Beach, France, with Honors College Professor John Bailly as part of the Honors College course Art, War and Human Rights. On the first trip in 2012, Ryan, an English major, was a student. Last year, he went as Bailly’s assistant. During the study abroad, students meet with a Holocaust survivor and then visit Omaha Beach in Normandy where Allied Troops invaded German-occupied France during World War II.
By Corey Ryan ’12
I had never heard this kind of silence before, the kind you’d usually reserve for death. I was standing on Omaha Beach and listened for something, anything, really.
Not the wind, nor the faint murmuring of tourists walking about, and certainly not the sound of English Channel waves crashing against the cliffs.
I felt trapped. My legs couldn’t move. I wanted to yell for somebody to come and drag me out of this thing, but I couldn’t, knowing that 69 years ago a mortar shell hit this earth and left its mark right where I was standing. Was somebody standing here, 69 years ago, when it hit?
Climbing out of that crater was like climbing out of Hell, a stark contrast to what I saw when I finally reached the top: the English Channel extending for miles ahead of me, bleeding into the clouds so that it almost seemed like the water rose all the way to Heaven. On the cliff-top where I was standing, dozens and dozens of impact craters similar to the one I just crawled out of dotted the landscape, with a few destroyed German bunkers scattered throughout. This was Pointe du Hoc, one of the many sites of the Normandy landings.
It was surreal being in Normandy, a place of such beauty and of such destruction. I had read the stories, seen the movies, and still, I had a hard time accepting what once occurred here. We live in the present attempting to understand the past, but we can never relive it. Leaving the United States for a summer, traveling to France, and visiting Normandy, I was doing my best to understand the world, to understand a time where men and women sacrificed their lives and their futures so selflessly, so that you and I may live in a world without hate.
Earlier that day I visited the ever personal, and sadly, less frequently visited British Cemetery in Bayeux. As I strolled between the rounded rows of marble crosses, I read the inscriptions the families of the fallen had written at the base of each headstone. Some were from the Bible, reminding us that their loved ones are in a better place. Others were more personal. “You were taken but baby Francis came to take your place, your loving wife Marie.” Some even displayed the camaraderie shared between these soldiers. “The fittest place where man can die, where he dies for man.”
I was confused. I couldn’t understand the selflessness. I appreciated it and recognized each soldier’s sacrifice, but I couldn’t fully grasp the idea of giving up my own life so that others may live freely. Maybe it’s my fault for that. Maybe it’s because of the world we live in today, where people are so detached from everything around them that they take for granted how lucky they are to be living.
Later that day I went to the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Rounding the corner, I stood in front of the Memorial and looked out upon all 9,387 marble crosses, each standing at attention, completely uniform. Each cross has a story to tell, a story of life and of death. Who were all these men and women? They were all from different parts of the same country, united in a cause. Most were not much older than myself, some even in their teenage years. They had their lives ahead of them: college, marriage, kids, growing old, and a proper death. There was more to their lives that they could have chosen to live, but instead, they chose to fight.
As I stood in front of some of these crosses I asked myself, “If the time comes, can I do what these soldiers did?” I mean, I’ve got a family, a life, love, everything these soldiers had. I had time to think about this as I walked down a path to Omaha Beach itself. After the day’s experience, I felt closer to understanding something significant. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I knew it would be something that would change me forever.
When I finally stepped onto the sand, I tried to imagine what it must have looked like on D-Day, June 6, 1944: the early morning fog, the ebb and flow of the waves during low tide, the Belgian gates and hedgehogs sitting, waiting. Then I pictured it all. The armada of ships headed towards the shore, the German bunkers outfitted with machine guns, the soldiers storming the beach, the bullets, the explosions, the death. I was standing on the beach where all that happened, where history was made, where the fight to establish what we’ve come to know today was held. I’ve never felt closer to understanding life than in these moments of visualization.
I started walking towards the water, but the closer I got, the further I sank down into the sand. I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and kept walking. With each step, I sunk almost a foot deeper down into the sand. When I finally reached the water, the frigid temperature gave me a shock like I had been electrocuted. As I turned and looked up the hill towards the cemetery, I finally discovered what I knew was on its way.
I didn’t understand the selflessness, and I still don’t, but maybe that’s because I’ve yet to find myself in a situation where I could sacrifice my life for another. Maybe I’ll understand it better when I become a father. But what I can do, to fulfill my responsibility as a citizen of a country and an idea that these soldiers fought and died for, is live my life to the fullest. Life is too short not to experience what the world has to offer. It would be irresponsible not to.
Facing the hill, I again imagined myself on the beach the day of the landings. I pictured the men storming the beach, storming for freedom, storming for life. I did the same. I began to run. With each stride I sank deeper into the sand, appreciating those who did this already, only with eighty pounds of gear on their back and bullets spilling onto them from every direction. But I wasn’t running to escape death. I ran for my own war that was about to begin, that had already begun; only I hadn’t realized I was fighting in it until now. I ran towards life, towards the life that I want to live, towards what lay ahead, and even though I may not know what lies over the hill, I will face it head-on. ♦