Posted on Sep 8, 2019 in Alumni News
Seventeen KU alumni shared the extraordinary experience of visiting Normandy, as the Flying Jayhawks took part in our nation’s continued commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
“Homebased” out of the picturesque city of Honfleur, we spent eight days covering the Normandy region, including walking the hallowed ground of the Normandy invasion—the beaches of Utah, Omaha and Pointe-du-Hoc. Joined by 12 alumni from the University of Nebraska (who all were highly impressed with the great support we received from the KU Alumni Association), our group of 29 gained a newfound appreciation for the incredible sacrifices that the “Greatest Generation” made in liberating France and Europe.
As I reflect back on our trip, I don’t believe our eight-day visit could have been planned or executed any better—just like a military operation! We owe a huge shout out to the KU Alumni Association (thanks Tegan!); our intrepid travel leader, Emiliano “Emi” Rio; our daily tour guides, William, Claire and Marie; and the entire team from AHI Travel – you all rocked! As Emi continually reminded us in his perfect Argentinian, French and Belgian cocktail of an accent: “Dress like onions—many layers!” (The Jayhawks had to interpret for the Cornhuskers.)
While the beaches and the D-Day Memorial were certainly our primary calling, let’s be honest, everyone on the trip was a foodie. So let’s start there.
Each morning we awoke in our lovely hotel to the smell of a breakfast—and there was nothing “petit” about this petit déjeuner. The local cheeses, flaky chocolate-filled croissants, baguettes slathered with Normandy butter, fresh fruits (something had to be approved by our cardiologists!), the spécialté de la maison, Teurgoule. Stick a fork in me; I’m done!
Okay, back to the trip. We were treated with a “soft landing” on Monday, our first day in Normandy. We were led through the streets and rich history of Honfleur, which included Saint Catherine, which is quite an unusual wooden church. Saint Catherine looks a bit like an upside down boat, largely because the local shipbuilders constructed it in the 1500s. And perhaps most importantly, our local guide pointed out the “must dine” restaurants in Honfleur.
Tuesday, was completely dedicated to visiting Mont Saint-Michel: amazing. Mont Saint-Michel looks like something straight out of a Hollywood studio—a fantastical city rising from Normandy’s tidal marshes with towering spires and ramparts.
As we quickly discovered, the Mont is not for the faint of heart, it was a bit of a workout traversing from our shuttle stop to the Mont’s entrance, and then onward and upward through the steep winding village street lined by museums, restaurants and shops. Finally, the “Grand Degre” stairs (350 steps) gateway led to the goal of our hike, the imposing abbey which has served as the goal for pilgrims since the 8th century. You cannot visit Mont Saint Michel without reflecting on Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and the improbable craftsmanship and ingenuity of 8th-century church-builders.
Wednesday was jam-packed and included one of the best meals we had as a group. (Did we mention we enjoyed the food?)
The day began with a visit to the Caen Memorial, which was thoughtfully placed at the beginning of our World War II battlefield study. The museum included an overview of the beginnings of World War II, which provided us with a strong educational foundation for our upcoming walks along the D-Day landing beaches.
Following Caen, we drove to Les Vergers de Ducy, a family farm, which makes classic fortified apple cider and our group’s new favorite liquors: Normandy Pommeau and the famous apple brandy, Calvados. We were treated to a tour of the distillery and then shared an delectable French dejeuner of rooster, meats, local cheeses, fresh salads, another Teurgoule recipe, and of course, baguettes with butter! After lunch, we “sampled” the Poummeau and Calvados, and then made a beeline to their gift shop.
Wednesday afternoon continued our D-Day study, with visits to Utah Beach, the landing site of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division (led by Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.), and Sainte-Mère-Église, the first town liberated by Operation Overlord.
We walked along reflectively, considering the lost youth and innocence of the young men who stormed ashore in 1944, supported by air assaults conducted by units from the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions. During our bus ride back to Honfleur, our tour guide William Jordan provided us a moving rendition of speeches given by Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery, as our group quietly considered our first experience of the D-Day invasion.
Again, I have to tip my chapeau to the trip organizer: Thursday was a day afforded to each traveler to do as they please!
After the emotional visit to the beaches, each of us was ready for a day to recharge and refit for the rest of the week. The world’s greatest travel director, Emi, worked with several groups to help them schedule visits to the art museums of Rouen; the modern-looking church of Eglise Jeanne d’Arc, which sits on the site of Joan of Arc’s burning; Lisieux, the home of the Catholic saint, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who founded “the Little Way”; and of course, several chose to hang in Honfleur to take in a day cruise on the Seine and a bucket of mussels for lunch. (I’m not sure what the Nebraska group did on their day off—shucked some corn?)
Friday was our capstone event: the trip to Pegasus Bridge, Arromanches, Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc.
On this day, we came to appreciate the herculean effort involved in the allied amphibious invasion to liberate France and the rest of Western Europe. From the implausible construction feat of the “mulberries” to Colonel Rudder’s Ranger assault on the formidable cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, our travel guide and military historian introduced us to the everyday men and women who served our country with the highest valor.
As we walked along, we couldn’t help consider the juxtaposition of the serene beaches we experienced, with those blood-stained and scarred beaches of 1944. Perhaps the height of this juxtaposition was experienced during the last component of our Normandy battle visit—the visit to the iconic American Cemetery. Situated on a bluff overlooking Omaha beach, the American Cemetery is a solemn site. We are all transfixed by the green fields filled with seemingly endless ranks of white Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, especially when we consider they represent only a small fraction of the Americans who died here.
Containing the graves of more than 9,380 of our military dead and the engraved names of the 1,557 American soldiers whose bodies were never identified or found, the cemetery memorializes the human cost of the Normandy invasion with unimaginable peace and tranquility. The statue “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” symbolizes the thousands of men who sacrificed their lives in Normandy for a people they never knew.
As we leave this cemetery this moving and somewhat haunting statue is our last stop. Rightfully so, as we complete the World War II component of our trip, we are left to ponder the incalculable cost of freedom: the lives lost, the dreams incomplete and families left behind.
We leave our incredible journey on a lighter note with a trip to a town that managed to avoid bombing in World War II, the city of Bayeux.
It is here that we visit the best-known piece of embroidery in the world, the Bayeux Tapestry. Intended for an illiterate audience, the tapestry commemorates King William’s conquest of England. The tapestry is 230 feet long and contains exquisitely detailed scenes embroidered with tiny, precise stitches. Saturday evening provides our group one last opportunity to celebrate our combined Jayhawk camaraderie, reflect on the incredible travel experience we shared and bid farewell to one another and to our effervescent host, Emi.
As part of our farewell reception, we broke down in small groups and enjoyed a “Jeopardy-like” trivia contest to determine who had the best grasp of renowned KU trivia and important tidbits from the trip.
- Question: “This classic hangout has served as the beginning of many long-term relationships to include that of your hosts”
- Answer: “What is the Wheel?!”
(Sorry, Cornhuskers, missed that one?)
After recognizing the winning team with a bottle of Pommeau and some of Honfleur’s finest shot glasses, our group headed out for a wonderful meal in the heart of the dining district. Did I mention that we were all foodies?
Mike and Karen
The Flying Jayhawks “Normandy” trip took place Aug. 17-25, 2019. The trip was hosted by Mike Denning, c’83, a retired Marine Corps colonel and director of the KU Office of Graduate Military Programs, and his wife, Karen Abram Denning, c’83. Find more information about Flying Jayhawks trips, including a schedule, or sign up for travel emails.