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A Visit to Normandy Teaches Lessons About D-Day

A family learns the stories of WWII and its veterans

My heart dropped when we entered an exhibition room that displayed, at its center, an American World War II fighter jet detailed with Rising Sun flags to represent each enemy plane its pilot had shot down. While I worried about bringing my Japanese guests to a celebration of America's victory over Japan, Mr. Kobayashi eagerly examined that plane, and everything else on display about the war's Pacific theater.

He and his wife were children in the 1940s and they remembered aspects of the war (especially the firebombings of Tokyo). But because postwar Japan sought to put its past away, the Kobayashis' generation wasn't taught much about the war itself. Our impromptu visit to the Intrepid had provided my visitors with a personal, intergenerational connection to the past.

"Imagine what it would be like to go on a long trip knowing that at the end of it, you would probably die," my son bluntly observes, pointing out how the same is true for soldiers who leave home for wars today.

In turn, these friends began to share with us their own memories of that time. Personal narrations, especially from people you know, can be invaluable. My own parents' stories about (for my dad) being of draft age during Vietnam and (for my mother) the limited rights and opportunities available to women decades ago give me insight and a connection to a time I'm glad to have arrived beyond.

Last month, while cleaning out the home of his recently deceased parents, my husband found a Time magazine special issue honoring D-Day's 60th anniversary. In one of the articles, 90-year-old veteran James Eikner recalled landing on the beach and scaling Pointe du Hoc: "Toward the sea the cliffs dropped off about 100 ft. on the average, from vertical to near vertical to actually overhanging.… [T]he enemy was leaning over and shooting at us and throwing down hand grenades by the bushel basketful."

My family and I read Eikner's account, and the recollections of other survivors, before and during our own tour of Normandy. It's not hard to imagine the terror that must have ripped through every soldier on and before D-Day. Listening to Jack these past few days, I know his first overseas excursion is having an impact.

"Imagine what it would be like to go on a long trip knowing that at the end of it, you would probably die," my son bluntly observes, pointing out how the same is true for soldiers who leave home for wars today.

I don't know whether Jack will ever speak up in a social studies class and share this spot-on observation with his peers. But I'm hopeful that, going forward, he'll understand that what might seem awesome in a war movie or video game, or even an afternoon of paintball, is horrifying to experience in real life.  

Melissa Stanton is a former editor at Time Inc. magazines and a frequent contributor to AARP.org.

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