Sacred ground:

Stepping off the map and onto the beaches, cliffs of Normandy

Unprecedented staff ride helps U-M ROTC candidates process the reality of D-Day

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Story by Fernanda Pires, photos and video by Jeremy Marble, page layout by Nicole Smith

NORMANDY, France—As the students approach the jagged edge of Pointe du Hoc on the northwestern coast of Normandy, they seem bewildered.

They have studied World War II and learned how U.S. Army rangers stormed Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, scaling the Normandy cliffs under heavy enemy fire. And they know about D-Day, the largest amphibious invasion in history and the bloody battle that marked a turning point for the Allied forces.

But nearly eight decades after the invasion that led to the liberation of Western Europe, the students are learning something new about the wartime experience as they embark on an unprecedented staff ride with the University of Michigan Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

Alexis Gonzalez with memorial plaque at Point du Hoc.
Army Cadet Alexis Gonzalez at the WWII U.S. Army Rangers memorial at Pointe du Hoc

“You read about the Allies’ invasion in the books and learn details about this specific operation, the high cliffs, but you don’t think much of it,” said Army Cadet Alexis Gonzalez, one of 30 cadets and midshipmen who explored the Normandy site this spring as part of a unique military staff ride. “Once you step in here, you see—in person—the masses of the cliffs, their height and the difficult terrain the rangers had to climb; it’s kind of a shock.”

Gonzalez had researched the Pointe du Hoc operation and surrounding terrain for a semester before traveling to France, but admits he was still surprised when he hit the ground on a cold and windy March morning. The sky was blue with only some scattered clouds, allowing a pristine view of the vast 100-foot cliffs overlooking the narrow French beaches.

“The (rangers) had their rockets so they had to throw the rocket-propelled ladder up these cliffs and climb them while being cut down by the German forces,” he said. “Actually, just scaling it looks difficult, but imagine having a machine gun raining down fire on you. So that puts another perspective on what the rangers faced.”

Unprecedented–then and now

Surrounded by several concrete bunkers with tablets, the location at Pointe du Hoc is one of several simultaneous battle sites that occurred on D-Day. The most prominent naval, air and land operation in human history brought together Allied forces from the United States, Great Britain and Canada.

And for the first time, U-M enlisted qualified cadets and midshipmen representing the Army, Navy and Air Force units to visit and train together at northern France’s historic battlefields, monuments and memorials. All of the participants were college seniors who will serve in the U.S. military as commissioned officers upon graduation.

From left: Lt. Col. Thomas Church, Army Master Sergeant Carlos Castillo, Airforce Tech Sergeant Molly Shepherd, Lt. Col. Melissa Smith, Marine Capt. Jared Stein, Captain Scott Bunnay
From left: Lt. Col. Thomas Church, Army Master Sergeant Carlos Castillo, Air Force Tech Sergeant Molly Shepherd, Lt. Col. Melissa Smith, Marine Capt. Jared Stein, Captain Scott Bunnay
Map showing where the Allied Forces landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944
Map showing where the Allied Forces landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944

“This is the first time the three branches have come together and are actually on foreign soil to teach our future officers about what it means to be service members, to lead and to discuss the outcomes of a leadership,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Church, chair and professor of military science for U-M’s Army Officer Education Program.

“The Normandy staff ride is the only one of its kind, tailored for our future officers in the military. Here, we have the unique ability to see what happened on a huge scale, an operation that had never been done before. The D-Day operation changed the global perspective of what our military does for our country and for humankind.”

Staff rides: A practical military tool

Military staff rides date back to the 1700s when the Germans, under rulers like Frederick the Great, would deploy officers to explore the terrain to better understand ground conditions and prepare for battle, said Stephen Bourque, professor emeritus of history at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He traveled on the Normandy staff ride as the resident World War II expert.

Through a staff ride—a systematic analysis of a site to learn about the impact of geography, weather and human interactions of historical importance—the ROTC students gained a clearer understanding of the complexity of war and the chaotic interaction of human beings and their machines, clashing in a dynamic environment.

Staff ride participants
Staff ride participants

On the cliffs of Normandy and elsewhere, the students learned how to step off the map, get onto the land and walk through what occurred on D-Day.

“For the Michigan students who will be spending part of their career defending this country, it is more important than ever that they have an opportunity to learn about history, key sites and battles through an experience abroad before their commissioning and a first assignment,” said Valeria Bertacco, U-M vice provost for engaged learning. 

“Our mission is to provide them with the finest education, experiences and training so they can be prepared to perform at their best.”

Prep, then embark

Stephen Bourque, professor emeritus of history, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies
Stephen Bourque, professor emeritus of history, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies

A staff ride is characterized by three essential and distinct phases: (1) the systematic preliminary study of a selected campaign, battle or event; (2) an extensive visit of the actual site associated with that battle; and (3) an opportunity to integrate the lessons derived from each.

“The preparatory stage is crucial because staff rides rely on maximum student involvement to guarantee thought, analysis and discussion,” Bourque said. “They’ve done the research, written a paper and given a preparatory briefing back in Michigan. Now, we’re here in the field study phase. We’re going to where the events took place so they can immerse themselves in the environment.

Army Cadet Shane Yamco
Army Cadet Shane Yamco

“It gives students a practical understanding of the differences between maps, what’s written and what it looks like on the ground. There’s no way what they see on a map compares to what they see on the ground.”

Double majoring in economics and international studies, Shane Yamco said each location is “special in its own way” and contributes to the full picture of the Normandy invasions.

“The stories out here are inspirational,” said Army Cadet Yamco. “They are more than tactics, capabilities, weapons, engagements and all those strategies. It’s more about people, their leadership and how leaders inspired the troops. The military itself, which is fundamental to this place, is one of the biggest organizations of solidarity, bravery and sacrifice.”

Each stop: Patriotism, pride and sorrow

Normandy American Cemetery
Normandy American Cemetery

It’s a little before 9 a.m. at the Normandy American Cemetery as a group of U-M ROTC students prepares to raise the American flag. They have performed the ceremony several times before, but never in the first American cemetery on European soil, established on June 8, 1944.

The emotions here are different.

A few minutes before the flag ceremony, several cadets take deep breaths facing the almost 173 acres with 9,386 graves of American military personnel. Most of them lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations.

The green grass glimmers in the sun. Row after row of white crosses and Stars of David are perfectly aligned as far as the eye can see.

Army cadet Anthony John Nasharr
Army Cadet Anthony John Nasharr

Absolute silence.

“What an honor to raise the flag at the American Cemetery in Normandy,” said Anthony John Nasharr, a mechanical engineering student and Army cadet. “It’s a place I will never forget due to the significance of the battlefield and the care put into the memorial of those lost.”

The cemetery is at the north end of an access road on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the most restricted and heavily defended beach. Nearly 30,000 U.S. soldiers landed here—not really at the intended place. About 2,500 of them lost their lives, were injured, were missing or were taken prisoner in the early hours of the assault.

“Being able to stand where they stood at that time and see exactly what they went through is something we just don’t get anywhere else,” said David Walsh, a political science student and an Air Force cadet. “Plus, it’s incredible knowing that those soldiers—men and women just a bit older than me—sacrificed so much.

“It shapes my experience to know that I’m going into a career field where many of the people I will lead might be younger than me. What I am learning here speaks to the soldiers’ character, who they were and what they wanted to give us. And it’s something that I hope I can do if I’m called to do the same thing.”

For Capt. Scott Bunnay, clinical professor of naval science, the teaching and learning exchange completely shifts when you are on-site, especially in iconic places like the Omaha or Utah beaches.

“As military officers, we don’t operate in a classroom,” he said. “It is important to see the environment around you. When you physically touch the sand and feel the cold, we can discuss and introduce them to the ethical challenges faced by American military members in the past. We can discuss what they faced, their responses and how we can apply that to current operations and challenges they will face after they graduate from U-M as commissioned officers in the U.S. military.”

Nursing student Anna Schneider
Nursing student and Army Cadet Anna Schneider

Nursing student Anna Schneider said this staff ride flipped her understanding and desire to learn more about history, wars and human interactions alongside the decision making and lessons of the past.

“I’m going to be in the Army Nurse Corps, and sometimes it feels like all these Army tactics don’t really apply to me,” she said. “But being here in Normandy allows me to put myself in the shoes of people that served in the military, in world wars.

“I will work with a lot of veterans and people that are still on active-duty military, and I feel this experience will help me better understand where my patients are coming from and maybe some things they might be going through, like PTSD.”

A stop at Pegasus Bridge, where everything went right

Pegasus Bridge served as a vital strategic position during D-Day. A small force of 181 men, commanded by Maj. John Howard, landed at Ranville-Benouville in six 28-men gliders. With perfect navigation and piloting skill, the gliders landed on time and target within a few yards of each other.

The bridge was captured after a fierce 10-minute firefight six hours before the beach landings. Ninety minutes after taking off from England, Howard could send the code words “Ham and Jam,” indicating the Allies held the bridge.

Col. Cory Hollon
Col. Cory Hollon

“In the military, the tendency is to concentrate on and talk about where things went wrong,” said Col. Cory Hollon, a history expert who joined the U-M staff ride for the first time. “This is what catastrophic success looks like. Instead, everything worked out and they achieved their objective very quickly.

“These locations we are seeing are all-important because it is sacred ground for Americans. It is where there was this huge sacrifice of American blood. A treasure to initiate the liberation of France.”

Joy, sadness intertwined at Sainte-Mère-Église

Monument to the trapped paratrooper, John Steele.
Monument to the trapped paratrooper, John Steele.

It was another sunny, cold day when U-M’s ROTC students relived the Allies’ airborne landings in Sainte-Mère-Église, a commune in northwestern France. During a brief, one of the cadets explained what happened on that church square, where 30 paratroopers landed.

The area was a crucial location in defending the road to Omaha Beach. The operation was not successful, with some buildings catching fire, illuminating the sky and making easy targets for the descending men. The fire killed some; many hanging from trees and utility poles were shot. But not paratrooper John Steele.

Glancing upward while walking by the church, you can see a monument to the trapped paratrooper. Steele’s parachute caught on the spire of the town church, where he hung for two hours, pretending to be dead until the Germans captured him. He escaped and rejoined his platoon, which soon after captured and killed dozens of Germans.

More efficient, more united

Navy Cadet Caroline Knight
Navy Midshipman Caroline Knight

Navy Midshipman Caroline Knight will report to Naval Aviation Schools Command in Pensacola, Florida, after she graduates from U-M. She will be a naval flight officer, supporting navigation and weapon systems operations on Navy aircraft.

For her, the unprecedented staff ride and the chance to share four straight days of Normandy content with her peers in other military branches created the ideal transition from college life into her military commission.

“One area where German soldiers failed was working together with their joint tasks,” Knight said. “That was by design; Hitler did that on purpose so they wouldn’t take power from him eventually. That speaks to me about the importance of working together as different branches. Interacting and meeting with the Air Force and the Army has been very impactful.

“The breadth of knowledge that everyone has is incredible and combined with being able to stand where it happened, there’s no other replacement for that kind of learning.”

Air Force cadet David Walsh
Air Force Cadet David Walsh

Air Force Cadet Walsh also highlighted the importance of working with colleagues outside of one’s military and academic expertise. The Normandy experience not only brought together members of different military branches, but also diverse U-M schools and colleges that may not always collaborate.

“It’s not something I’ve done before, especially in my specific training,” Walsh said. “We look at the air power, at what the Air Force can bring to the fight. But now, we can look at what is changing in technology, at what it takes to be an allied commander, to work in a combined joint operation with the Army, the Navy or the Marine Corps.

“The end goal of D-Day was to bring freedom and liberty back to a world torn by war. Extreme sacrifice was made here not for a lust for power but for trying to remove the power force brought into this region and restore it to what it was. And by combining our forces, we can create a more useful and powerful force.”