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80 years later: Remembering the heroes of World War II
FIU students on a study abroad trip in Normandy, France, led by Honors College Fellow John Bailly, listen as fellow student Jose Kajatt presents his course project at the Normandy American Cemetery.

80 years later: Remembering the heroes of World War II

June 5, 2024 at 5:00pm

June 6 marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day. The military operation that would play a decisive role in the outcome of World War II began on that day in 1944 when some 150,000 troops from predominantly the United States and British Commonwealth landed on five beaches on the coast of Normandy, France. They relied on combined land, air and sea power during what became an 11-month battle against German forces. More than 73,000 Allied troops died during that time, and more than twice as many were wounded.

This week, commemorations take place in France in remembrance of those whose service ultimately helped liberate Europe from Nazi occupation and changed the course of history. As many as 200 veterans associated with the Normandy invasion were expected to attend overseas ceremonies this week, likely the last time such a large representation of survivors will take place.

Students are learning about World War II thanks to Terrence Peterson, an assistant professor of history at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs. He has written about the subject and teaches World War II: A Global History, which examines the origins, experiences and legacies of the conflict. He guides students to investigate the relationship between popular and historical accounts of the war, including films.

“World War II occupies such a large space in the public imagination,” Peterson says. “The heroism and images from D-Day are widely consumed by the public in feature films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Band of Brothers.’”

Peterson’s lectures convey how the world we live in was shaped by the war. He finds students deeply interested in the conflict, and he stresses its importance as foundational to understanding current geopolitics and human rights policies.

“World War II is the conflict that forced the U.S. to codify genocide and write it into law. The U.S. we live in today is the product of a great conflagration that killed 70 million people worldwide. The way people tell stories about the past allows them to tell stories about the present,” Peterson says.

And yet, he adds, how people speak about the context of historical events and their connection to today has diverged somewhat in recent years, revealing differing if not outright competing narratives.

“You can read this shift in how the current and previous presidents narrate D-Day,” he points out. “When Trump visited Normandy in 2019 for the 75th Anniversary, the story he told was one of American exceptionalism and American sacrifice: how America had saved Europe and was beloved for it. The emphasis lay very much on America’s unique role. Biden will likely frame his story of D-Day as an Allied fight against authoritarianism, stressing the importance of America's wartime partners, in large part because he wants to emphasize the importance of NATO in light of the war in Ukraine.”

“D-Day is one of the most profound events to take place in history due to the grandeur of selflessness displayed by the Allied personnel who risked their lives. As hatred and fear consumed much of the world, many young people determined that they could not stand idly by and bear witness to the atrocities that were occurring. With the average age of the individuals laid to rest at Normandy cemetery being 22, these people had so much life to be lived—hopes and dreams that would never be fulfilled.” - Emma Rogers ’24, who visited Normandy as a student last year during an Honors College study abroad program

Honoring D-Day is incredibly important because that battle marks the day the world fought against oppression. It is our responsibility now to continue educating future generations and remind them of the liberties that have been fought for us. Reading about World War II and D-Day never truly seems to capture the feeling of what it's like to witness the D-Day site in person. Having visited it myself, I encourage others to go and be reminded of the torch that was passed on to us.Joshua Villamizar, a current student who visited Normandy last year during an Honors College study abroad program