Today is the 71st anniversary of D-Day and I cannot think of a better day to collect my thoughts. Having stood on Omaha Beach just two weeks ago I am feeling both somber and proud today. I refrained from posting on the blog while we traveled because I wanted it to be about others experiences, not my own. As group leader my goal for the Honors WWII study abroad experience has always been about providing an experiential learning opportunity for students. But, now that our trip has concluded and I’ve been home for several days I realize how much I’ve gained in the process.
Studying WWII and the Western Front for the past year and a half to prepare for our course and this trip was somewhat selfish. I have not delved this deeply into a topic since graduate school. I’ve always been interested in this time period and how Americans contributed to the war effort at home and abroad. Shortly before D-Day in 1944 my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Joe, became a civilian volunteer who went to Hawaii to help in the rebuilding effort at Pearl Harbor. He was unable to serve in the armed forces (medical issues) and this was his way to contribute to the war effort. My grandmother, Grandma Bonnie, was back at home in St. Louis with 2 little girls and another on the way. It must have been a terribly trying time for them. Grandma and the girls eventually went to Clarksville, AR to live with family in the area because they needed the support. The only record we have of this time in their lives are the letters that my grandpa wrote to my grandma and the girls. The letters tragically stopped in December 1944 when their 3 month old daughter, Nancy Joanne, died. My grandfather never got to see her because he was in Hawaii and I can only imagine the anguish they felt as a family during wartime. Happening at the same time halfway around the world, men were hunkered down in foxholes in the Ardennes Forest and fighting for their lives to rid the world of the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge. The war effort on the western front had been going so well that many thought that WWII would be over by Christmas. This was not to be as Hitler made one final push, his last stand in many ways, in dense forests covered with snow in the dead of winter. Whether at home or abroad, Christmas 1944, was not a joyous time.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Greatest Generation and the Allied Forces. I am proud to be an American and a citizen of the world: A world that stood up to the tyranny of the Third Reich and the pure evil that surrounded the Axis powers. I never fully grasped the Holocaust until I walked the grounds of Dachau Concentration Camp with my family last week. There had been moments all throughout our journey where I cried or my eyes welled with tears, but standing in the crematorium at Dachau found me weeping and almost brought me to my knees. If only for the people around me from all different countries did I manage to remain standing and bear witness to the war atrocities that occurred in that building. I left feeling raw and devastated. No one in our group even spoke on the bus for hours it seemed. Make no mistake, there still is and will always be evil in this world. Part of our purpose in our course and on this journey was to provide deep learning about WWII—not just surface learning about the topic. I hope we accomplished that because as George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I also gained a new appreciation of our United States Armed Forces, current and past, while abroad. Walking through the headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Henri Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium was overwhelming. It is inspiring to stand in a place of profound beauty that reminds us of unfathomable tragedy. The Stars of David and crosses that mark the final resting place of our service members had Abraham Lincoln’s words from the Gettysburg Address ringing in my head. These men and women had truly given “the last full measure of devotion.” I’m not proud to say that prior to this experience I would have had reservations about one of my children wanting to join the military. I’ve always admired my friends and acquaintances who are veterans or active service members, but my hesitation came from fear. I am no longer reluctant, but maybe still worry about the evil in this world. If one of my children said they wanted to join our US Armed Forces and devote their life to causes at home or around the world I would proudly stand and support them.
Our 16 day study abroad experience was the trip of a lifetime for many who participated. Students wrote this in their blogs and on social media. I’m glad they feel this way now and I hope that the sentiment grows with time. I studied abroad 21 years ago and I’m still grateful for the opportunity and how it changed me. Only in retrospect do I see how much it altered my worldview and I wish that for our students as well.
Below are group photos from our time abroad. These moments, these places, and these people mean so much to me.
Anna, Robert, Beth, Casey C., Jennifer, Britney, Jamie, Ethan, Shelby, Ashley, Emily, Cecily, Casey G., Jaqulyn, Audrey, and Earl—you were the ideal students to participate in our WWII class and this study abroad opportunity. You all have a passion for lifelong learning and I hope our travels have opened your eyes and hearts to the world around you. You were fun to travel with and we made some great memories together!
Dr. Erick Chang—our Honors Faculty in Residence who joined us for the trip and who brought along his zest for adventure. The trip would not have been the same without you.
I am indebted to Dr. Ed Salo who taught a large portion of our class. His knowledge of WWII and the Western Front is astounding and I learned so much from him. He also brought his wit, humor, and knowledge of history on our trip. You are great colleague and I can’t wait to collaborate with you again.
My husband Dr. Tim Oliver is my constant travel and life companion. I could not have pulled this study abroad experience off without his support and encouragement. We enjoy seeing the world together and making memories for us and our family. I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful Armed Forces Salute: Greatest Generation concert he did with the Wind Ensemble as a companion and interdisciplinary part of our WWII course. Tim, you are my center and no matter where in the world we might be I am always at home with you.
And finally to Ben & Gwen, my children, as this was their first time out of the US and traveling to another part of the world. You are both really good travelers and your energy level in keeping up with the “big kids” was impressive. Your Dad and I have always said we’d rather give you experiences instead of things—I think you both now have a better understanding of why this is important as global citizens.
We are all global citizens and students of history—we must be. On D-Day let us vow to Never Forget.