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people on a cold day at the beach

Reflections on Normandy, France

~ Eric Eickhoff

In the American mind, the word Normandy is synonymous with World War II and specifically with D-Day, the day when Allied Forces began to retake Europe from Nazi Germany. But the region, which has been scarred by centuries of war, has so much more to offer. At the end of April 2015, a group of 25 John Carroll University alumni and friends found out for themselves just what makes Normandy, France a place where every American should strive to visit. Below are my thoughts on the just a few of the highlights of the trip as well as those of others who joined us for this memorable journey.

The first thing that struck me as we departed Paris was beauty of the French countryside. There is a stark contrast of the vibrant yellow fields of canola and the lush green of wheat fields. There are rolling hills and hedgerows of trees with huge balls of mistletoe. Small villages visible due to their large Romanesque churches pop-up in the distance and horse and cattle farms litter the countryside. One only needs to see this once to see why the Normandy was prominently featured in French impressionism, especially in the work of Claude Monet and Edward Boudin.

After a two and a half hour drive we arrive in the charming village of Honfleur. Located at the mouth of the Seine River, Honfleur is a fishing village with a beautiful historic harbor, wonderful shops and amazing restaurants. Unlike many other towns in Normandy, Honfleur was spared from the ravages of World War II, preserving historic structures, such as the 15th century St. Catherine’s Church and the harbor house at the mouth of the harbor. Throughout the week Honfleur served as our “home” in Normandy.

Our focus then shifted away from Honfleur, to the Battle of D-Day, the largest and most complicated military campaign ever undertaken. Most Americans realize the significance of D-Day, but it is in some ways hard to comprehend the scale of Operation Overlord (the official military name for the invasion) unless you see it first hand. One of our first stops was Arromanches, home to the D-Day Museum as well as one of the two portable harbors that the Allied Forces brought with them from England. These massive harbors, one that served the British and one that served the American forces, played a vital role in the landing at Normandy and the support of the troops as the pushed through the French countryside.

group posing in front of a church

On our way up the coast, we then had what may have been one of the most emotional experiences of our trip, visiting the American Cemetery at Normandy, the final resting place for over 9,000 soldiers. As we disembarked from the bus, we were struck by the rows upon rows of bright white crosses and Stars of David, reminencent of Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington D.C. The rows seemed endless. We did have a very special reason to visit the cemetery, not only to pay our respects to those who fought to liberate Europe, but specifically to honor two son’s of John Carroll, Vincent P. Baltrukonis ’30 and Richard G. Robb ’38. Father Robert L. Niehoff, S.J., president of John Carroll University, who accompanied us on this trip, laid a wreath and said a prayer at Robb’s grave, honoring both men. Sadly, Baltrukonis’s body, like so many other service men, was never recovered and his name is etched on the Wall of the Missing, near the statue of the Spirit of American Youth towards the front of the cemetery. It truly was a memorable and very humbling experience. Shortly after our trip to the cemetery, we went down onto Omaha Beach, where most of the American blood was shed during the invasion. Knowing that the invasion was a massive undertaking, I had assumed that the beaches would be littered with landing equipment and barriers that the Nazis had constructed to inhibit the Allied forces progress. Much to my surprise, the beaches were pristine. Besides the break wall at Omaha, the only manmade structure was a beautiful brushed aluminum sculpture; there were no indications that thousands of men lost their lives on the grey sand of Omaha.

Our last stop of the day was to Pointe du Hoc, site of one of the more memorable acts of heroism during the invasion. Facing a 100 foot sheer cliff, U.S. Army rangers used rocket-propelled grappling hooks to scale what seemed to be an impenetrable barrier. The main objective was to destroy six German gun batteries, but upon reaching the summit, the Rangers realized that the batteries had been moved to the countryside. Eventually they found the guns and destroyed them. Pointe du Hoc is also famous in that it is the site of Ronald Reagan’s famous “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” speech. Unlike Omaha, the scars of war are still very visible at Pointe du Hoc, with concrete bunkers and bomb craters littering the coast.

Later in the week we visited the Utah Beach, the site of the other American landing site during the invasion. The differences between Omaha and Utah Beaches could not be starker. Unlike the carnage at Omaha, there was not nearly the loss of life at Utah, with just over 1,000 men giving the last full measure. Most of the men who perished that day, were part of engineering units, not the infantry. Following our stop at Utah, we visited the German Cemetery at La Combe. Unlike the American Cemetery, which very much seems like a celebration of life, the German Cemetery is very somber. Rather than the bright white gravestones that we encountered previous in the week, flat back stones, bearing two names, as each grave contains two soldiers, mark the German graves. Scattered throughout the cemetery are five black crosses and in the middle is a large mound containing the remains of over 200 unknown German soldiers. Topping the mound is a large cross, flanked by a grieving Mary and Joseph.

Another highlight of the tour was stepping visiting Bayeux. Like many other Norman towns, Bayeux is small and charming centered around a large church, in this instance a cathedral. However, while the cathedral is a site to see, the true highlight is the Bayeux tapestry. The tapestry, which is included on UNESCO World Heritage Site list, details the story of William the Conqueror and his victory over King Herald at the Battle of Hastings, and ultimately the Norman conquest of England. Its construction is an absolute marvel. Commissioned shortly after William’s victory in 1066, the 230 feet long tapestry consists of nine linen panels and hand embroidered. In total it took over 11 years to create. It is absolutely stunning.

Towards the end of our trip we visited Mont Saint-Michele, one of France’s most recognizable buildings. The origins of this UNESCO World Heritage site date back to the 9th century, when a local bishop was commanded by the Archangel Michael to build a church on the apex of the island. From that structure, a large abbey and monastery were built radiating out from the church in time, a medieval village was built at the bottom of the mount. Over the centuries, the island served as a prison and a fortress. The Mount remains one of the most visited sites in France, and is one of the most revered pilgrimage sites in Europe.

The last day of the trip was a free day to either explore Honfleur or visit other areas of Normandy. A large number of us chartered a bus to take us to Liseiux, another important pilgrimage site in France. Once home to Saint Therese “The Little Flower”, the city is home to a magnificent modern Basilica of Saint Therese. Encrusted with wall-to-wall mosaics, it housing a shrine to the saint as well as the mortal remains of her parents. Just a short walk down the hill is the Carmelite monastery, where Saint Therese was laid to rest. Saint Therese is often referred to as the most important modern saint in the Catholic Church because of her devotion to God, the way she approached her spirituality with simplicity.

While it was amazing to see the various sites throughout Normandy, what truly made the trip special were the people who were on the journey. The alumni and friends of John Carroll ranged from an alumnus who graduated in the mid-1950’s to one who just graduated a couple of years ago. We came from Ohio, Chicago, Florida and Connecticut. As I had mentioned earlier, Father Niehoff joined us on the trip as well and our guide Christine was truly fantastic. She was incredibly helpful, patient and kind. The group immediately bonded, sharing our own stories and explaining why this trip interested us. But more importantly, we share a lot of laughter and a few tears (especially at the American Cemetery). We spent pretty much the entire week together, breaking bread, enjoying French culture and wine. In the end, I am fortunate to have been able to go on this trip to see this part of the World. But I am truly thankful and blessed to have been able to experience this journey with a wonderful group of people, a group who I now consider friends.

JCU Alumni Trip to Normandy - 2015

A few reflections from fellow Normandy Travelers:

Mimi Luecke ’80

Our visit to Mont St. Michel was the last scheduled day trip for our group. By this time, we had become quite a tight knit crew. After a long and relatively quiet bus ride (lots of napping), we were rewarded with our first glimpse of Mont St. Michel – a majestic edifice seemingly rising out of an island of stone set against a beautiful blue sky. The blue sky alone was a novelty as our days in Normandy had been grey thus far. We were joined by our guide who introduced us to the legend, the history and the miracle of Mont St. Michel.

The legend begins with St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches. He commissioned the construction of a church on the rocky islet after the Archangel Michael appeared to him. The actual construction, which was done in stages over time, is quite remarkable. A monastery sits atop the rock, below it great halls for the royal class, and below that housing for the common people. The ‘rock’ was considered sacred, so much of the construction was done so as not to alter it. Seeing how this was accomplished, especially considering how long ago it was, is impressive.

The history of Mont St. Michel is equally fascinating. For over 1000 years, the faithful made pilgrimages there to honor the Archangel Michael and to seek the assurance of eternity. During the French Revolution, the structure was used as a prison. Overtime, both Brittany and Normandy have laid claim to Mont St. Michel. Today this historic monument is a part of Normandy.

After getting our marching orders and synchronizing our watches, we scattered to explore the wonders contained at Mont St. Michel. Starting at the bottom there were charming shops, restaurants and inns. Those who chose to climb 900 stairs, some quite steep, were treated to glorious views from the courtyards at the top. Below, we watched guides taking groups across dangerous quicksand during low tide. Why would anybody want to do that?!

Everyone successfully reconvened at the appointed time to enjoy lunch following which our guide led us on a tour. There was so much to see. A beautiful statue of St. Michael, a giant wheel to open a drawbridge, large rooms with intricate inlaid floors, courtyards, rooms used for prayer, a peaceful graveyard. We learned how the rooms were heated, how food was cooked, how ‘indoor bathrooms’ on the top floor were used (wouldn’t have been a good idea to stand below those openings). The story of Mont St. Michel is very intriguing – so much to see and learn. Something memorable for everyone!

Upon completing our tour, we navigated our way back to the bus. The consensus was that Mont St. Michel is a breathtaking and fascinating site. Speaking of breathtaking, later that evening as we set out for dinner, we were lucky enough to see a beautiful double rainbow. Perhaps St. Michael and John Carroll were smiling on us!

Lynn Priemer ’87G

Honfleur was as charming and impressive as the picture on the cover of the Michelin Green Guide. It was a wonderful place to stay within walking distance of restaurants, shops and beautiful sights. John was especially thankful for the shops as his luggage had still not arrived. Despite this he managed to look well put together Our tour guide was terrific as she shared the history and stories of Honfleur. Among the highlights were walking the narrow old streets, looking at the half-timbered buildings, enjoying the sights of the market day (the strawberries were an amazing red) and visiting St. Catherine Church, a rarely built wooden church. The stone masons were all busy rebuilding after the Hundred Years War. Honfleur was the home of artists and explorers, Champlain having departed from here to found Quebec in 1608. The painting Gordon bought arrived in one piece, and is such a beautiful and happy memory of our wonderful time in Honfleur. Barbie’s was shipped with it and we were able to toast our terrific JCU trip to Normandy.

John Schubert ’13H

While the Normandy beaches and the details of D-Day were fascinating, the highlight of the trip for me was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of visiting Mont-Saint-Michel. The cathedral is splendid, but its setting atop the rock is what makes it so special, both from a distance and as one climbs the winding streets to reach it. Another major monument in art history is the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry, which I only wish we could have lingered with instead of being pushed along by the crowd and the recorded description. Of course, Mont-Saint-Michel has served as a fortress, and the tapestry portrays the Norman Conquest, so the theme of war, alas, unified the entire excursion.