Cruise travel has a reputation as a fun and frothy style of travel. However, cruising can also provide opportunities for profound experiences that resonate deeply within travelers’ memories. Our excursion to the D-Day landing beaches when we were aboard Azamara Club Cruises is an excellent example.
Neither of us are veterans, nor did we have immediate family in WWII. But as we counted down the days to our voyage, we knew one excursion on the itinerary would be distinct. Visiting the American Cemetery at Normandy and standing on Omaha beach would stir very different feelings than other, more lighthearted port visits.
We recalled from long-ago classroom history lessons that the D-Day invasion represented a major turning point in the Allied battle against the Nazis. Their killing machine eliminated millions of Jews, thousands of Roma, the disabled, and our own LGBTQ people forced to wear the pink triangle. We knew that the excursion to the D-Day beaches would bring us a sobering rendezvous with history. What we didn’t expect was the depth of the emotions it would induce.
Kathrine, our knowledgeable guide, helped set the scene for us. She described the secrecy surrounding the D-Day invasion and the fact that Hitler was expecting another location. The tides were a crucial part of the plan, and June 6, 1944 was the last possible day for another three weeks.
As we drew near to the site, we saw a peaceful, lush and verdant area with many old farmhouses still in use after hundreds of years. However, once we entered the cemetery itself, it was a sobering and shocking sight made much more powerful in person. Row upon row of graves marked by crosses interspersed with Stars of David made the horror of this battle come down on us like a weight. We immediately fell silent, with tears in our eyes as we began to understand the enormity of the Allied deaths during the invasion.
Many died that day because they were in the front rows of the amphibious landing vehicles. Hearing the bullets hit the tailgates, they had to have known many would die in the next few minutes. Indeed, many wouldn’t live long after the vehicles landed. Others perished in the heavy surf because they had heavy packs or the fact that they could not swim.
We walked into the large memorial at the entrance to the cemetery, with the graves to the left. Again, the sheer scope of the numbers of graves was horrifying. As we walked toward the Chapel further on, it slowly became apparent that as the ground sloped downward, there lay hundreds more graves. The scale of the carnage once again hit us in the gut.
In one portion of the cemetery we saw from a distance that a family had gathered around one of the graves. Seeing that one of them was a woman in a wheelchair, we couldn’t help wondering what loss she experienced. Was she the serviceman’s widow? Perhaps his daughter that he may never have seen? How did the experience of visiting this place feel for her and the rest of her family?
Moving on with the day, the group quietly boarded the bus to Omaha beach. Knowing a bit of background, it was a moving experience to stand on the beach and simply put us in that place over 70 years ago. We were forced to imagine what it must have been like to be exposed on the beach with machine gun fire raining down from the hills and air strikes from above.
As gay men, our perspective on history naturally focuses on the largely untold stories of LGBTQ people. American LGBTQ service men and women during WWII served their country from inside the closet, possibly not even having the luxury of writing “I love you” in letters home to their beloved. We also feel a kinship with our brothers and sisters, LGBTQ people among those who were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to their deaths in the camps. We wondered about the closeted service members who may have helped liberate their pink triangle-wearing queer counterparts from camps after the end of the war, unable to express openly their sense of solidarity.
We’re glad we choose this excursion, although to some it may seem to represent a stark contrast to our other upbeat cruise activities. Standing on the cloudy, windswept beach where so many died, we felt respect and gratitude for those who gave their lives in this place. We contemplated the nature of the evil that our troops fought to overcome. We couldn’t help but consider that xenophobia and hatred of gay people, and other groups seen as outsiders, still exists in this world. The visit to the D-Day beaches underscored our certainty that we need to do all in our power to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.