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Students visit site of D-Day invasion on unique study trip

June 20, 2014 : By Mitzi Bible/Liberty University News Service

A Liberty University group on Omaha Beach.
Members of a Liberty University Study Abroad trip on Omaha Beach on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

A trip to Europe earlier this month gave 15 Liberty University history students the opportunity to go back in time to the largest seaborne military invasion in history.

The students, on a 10-day tour through England and France as part of the university’s Study Abroad program, attended ceremonies for the 70th anniversary of D-Day on the site where thousands of Americans gave their lives to defeat the Nazis and end World War II.

Students joined thousands of guests, including D-Day veterans, family members of the fallen, and world leaders at the American Cemetery in Colleville sur Mer, France. The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach, where American troops invaded the northern coast of France on June 6, 1944. More than 9,500 crosses mark the graves of American soldiers.

The trip, from June 2-10, was led by Dr. Douglas Mann, dean of the Graduate School; Dr. Bruce Bell, associate dean in the College of General Studies; and Dr. David Snead, a history professor who regularly teaches courses on U.S. military history and World War II.

“It was very moving to be a part of the ceremonies honoring the heroes of D-Day, and … to be on the beach after the ceremonies,” Mann said. “It was low tide — like it was when the soldiers came in 70 years ago — and we could look back and see the tremendous amount of beach they had to cover, then the embankment they had to climb. How they accomplished that is an incredible story.”

Bell, retired Lt. Col. U.S. Army, who spent 26 years in military service, was able to watch the ceremony from his seat 12 rows from the stage. The ceremony included speeches from President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande.

Bell said the event was unforgettable, to be surrounded by so many veterans and have a chance to meet some of them and hear their memories of that fateful day.

“It was the greatest concentration (of D-Day veterans) that we will ever see at one place at one time. It was absolutely thrilling. All around me I had these old troopers — they really made possible for us what we are today,” he said.

Michael Megelsh, who is pursuing his master’s in history, learned about the trip in one of Snead’s classes.

“That was a real selling point for the trip, to be able to be there at Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day,” he said. “It wasn’t seeing all the dignitaries there, but walking down the beach itself, actually being on the sand that the men fought to take from the Nazis and walking on the same ground they did, that was the most moving part.”

Liberty graduate Ashley Sears with a group of U.S. soldiers.
Recent Liberty University graduate Ashley Sears stands with U.S. soldiers at the American Cemetery in Colleville sur Mer, France on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Ashley Sears, a recent graduate, said the highlight for her was talking to veterans, including a German Jew who was in an internment camp at the beginning of the war and escaped to the U.S., became a GI, and was on the beaches a few days after D-Day to witness the aftermath.

The trip itinerary focused on historical sites from World War II. Students first arrived in London, where they viewed Winston Churchill’s bunkers; the HMS Belfast, which was part of the D-Day forces and is docked on the River Thames; saw a production of “Les Miserables;” and left for Normandy from Portsmouth at the southern tip of England. The ferry ride followed the same course as the American military forces who traveled to France the day before D-Day.

After Normandy, the students traveled to Paris, where they visited the Shoah Memorial, dedicated to the 76,000 French Jews deported from France to Nazi concentration camps. Bell said that visiting the memorial was “a powerful punctuation mark as to why D-Day was so necessary.”

Some of the departments represented on the trip to England and France were Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary, the Department of History, the Department of English & Modern Languages, the School of Education, and Counseling & Family Studies.  Since May, Liberty’s Study Abroad program has sent students on short-term trips to Israel, Rome, Greece, Ireland, and Guatemala, with students receiving course credit for their studies. The program also offers trips during fall, spring, and winter breaks, as well as semester-long sessions. Many of the trips include service opportunities.

The Study Abroad program is constantly seeking to provide new trips for more disciplines so that students can supplement their classroom learning as they engage other cultures around the world. These trips are available to Liberty’s online students as well.

“These are life-altering opportunities for students to travel and get to see and experience so many important places and events,” Bell said. “The classroom is great, but there is a lot of education that can happen outside the walls, and that is precisely what we try to do on these educational tours. Our students who went to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary will never ever forget that day.”