During the planning phase for this trip, the cadets came to realize that we would really want to spend some time in Paris while in France. It would be a shame if we traveled that far and didn’t see the “must-see” places and things in the City of Lights.
The hard part was identifying what all the “must- see” things are since the list of possibilities is endless — and we would have a day to see them. It will likely not surprise those who know me, but to figure out where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see, we referred back to the purpose of our trip — to gain a thorough appreciation for what the U.S. and our allies have accomplished in preserving freedom and liberty.
Our friend Dom Launay knew exactly where we’d want to go to see, feel, and appreciate the full gravity of our historic commitment. He had been so spot-on throughout the Cotentin Peninsula and Marne/Aisne Valleys that when he suggested the walking-tour circuit around Paris, we immediately agreed. He also suggested that we walk in order to see all of the in-between areas…great idea!
Our hotel was near Nation Square so we began our walking tour there at about 8 a.m. — proceeding toward the River Seine to move north on the west side of the river. We caught our first good glimpses of the Eiffel Tower as we walked along. The first significant feature that we came to was Notre Dame which recently had some serious damages due to fire. The entire outline of the structure is different from what it should be. There is scaffolding over the building that one may assume has been erected to make repairs. Actually, the scaffolding was there during the fire which started due to some of the renovation work that was happening. Dom explained that one of the immediate problems to repairing Notre Dame is first removing the damaged and unstable scaffolding which may cause more damage and/or death in order to put up different scaffolding in support of repair projects.
Looking across the River Seine at a significantly damaged Notre Dame.
The first stop on our tour was at Les Invalides (formerly the hotel for the invalids) which houses the National Military Museum, a home for veterans, a military cathedral, and several burial tombs of famous French military figures —most notably, Napoleon. History is literally everywhere you look in this area and the artwork is overwhelming. In my discussions with our cadets, we try to find parallels between what we are seeing in France and what we have back home, but the one thing that continually comes to the front is that our history — the length of it — just does not compare. We are walking into a building that was built like 700 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Wow.
Our original purpose for the trip to France was to mainly focus on the Airborne component of the D-Day landings. We certainly stuck to that purpose, but also expanded to include the beach landings, glider assaults, and follow-on operations in World War II. We dug into the culture of the Normandy region as well as France and Western Europe. We studied some of our allies’ operations — from WWII as well as the Great War (World War I).
We came to realize that the French people and the country has a long history of war and has had an enormous impact on civilization throughout the world. We learned a deeper meaning for the concept of “liberty.” We learned that those who truly love the concept are those who have lost their liberty in the past. We gained a greater understanding of how many of the oppressed around the world look to our country, the United States of America, as the beacon of liberty that has and will continue to stand up to those who seek to oppress.
We walk through the Army Museum and see relics of the French forces through the ages. We see weapons of all shapes and sizes — pikes to swords and rifles to artillery pieces. We see uniforms and flags of various units that have history twice as long as our country. We see saddles and armor and even Napoleon’s horse (stuffed and on display). We read historical accounts of various periods and it is all very interesting. What strikes me most is that all of it boils down to the instruments of violence and destruction intended to be employed to bring about peace and liberty. It is a human endeavor that costs lives of our young. I wish it was unnecessary.
We visit the church at Les Invalides which consists of two parts: the Cathedral of Saint Louis and the Dome des Invalides. Within the cathedral, there are several unit colors/standards hung around the balcony level. When I first see them, I naturally assume that they are like the ones that we always had in the many military chapels that I have attended over the years — the unit colors that belong to that chapel. Not the case with these. In fact, these flags are those that have been captured from defeated enemies over time. I didn’t count, but there were about 50 flags hanging there. Apparently at one time, there were more than 1,500 flags hanging here, but they were taken down and burned. The flags there now are recent captures. The Dome des Invalides houses the tomb of Napoleon as well as several others.
The next stop was at the Eiffel Tower since no visit to Paris would be complete without this compulsory visit. We were able to get a great vantage point for some photos with the tower, but didn’t spend too much time around the area. Due to many recent events, security around even the Eiffel Tower is very restrictive these days. Where the base was always open to the public to just stroll through, there is now a wall built around the outer perimeter of the structure and you must stand in line just to walk under the tower. If you want to go to the top, you have to stand in another line to get a ticket in order to stand in another line to get on the elevator. Once you’ve seen the view, you stand in another line to get on the down elevator. We didn’t have time to stand in line(s) so we proceeded to the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe.
Cadets Jordan Ballow, Billy Wilson, instructor retired Lt. Col. Jon Ring, and Cadet Chason Wilson arrive at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris France. Napoleon began the construction of the Arc in 1806 to commemorate France’s many triumphs during his campaigns.
The history that oozes from the entire structure of the Arc is absolutely amazing. The group is awestruck by the beauty and realism of the artwork. You could literally spend days looking at the detail and never fully appreciate it all — and it’s right there in the middle of a very busy roundabout traffic circle. Beneath the Arc are several brass plaques that commemorate those involved in the various contemporary conflicts that France has been part of since the Great War. Some may be surprised to see the plaque for the French battalion who fought under the United Nations Command in Korea or those in Algiers, Tunisia or Morocco. France’s Unknown Soldier is entombed at the base of the Arc de Triomphe. He is an unidentified soldier from the Great War who represents all who have died for France.
We continued through the city soaking in all the sights. We saw “Liberty’s Torch” which, oddly enough, is directly above the tunnel that Princess Dianna died in. We saw the U.S. Embassy and the surrounding diplomatic missions. We did a little shopping for souvenirs. Just when we thought that we were about to wind down our walking tour, we realized that we were mere blocks from the Louvre. Of course, we had to see the “Mona Lisa.”
Off we went. Again, the group was struck by the sheer volume of artwork — as well as the size of some of the works of art. Many of the famous paintings are very big. The “Mona Lisa” is not. After working our way through the crowded room where she is hung, we get to the front and find that the painting is quite average size. Of course, it is behind several layers of protection so you can only get so close. It is a beautiful painting — a masterpiece — but much smaller than most expected. We rush through the museum seeing really only about five percent of what is there. Someday, we promise ourselves, we’ll go back and see it all.
The final adventure for the day is taking the subway back to Nation Square. As luck would have it, the station that we enter is right on the line that takes us to Nation. We get tickets and push onto loaded train cars. About 12 minutes later, we head back to the surface to walk to the hotel. We’ve walked nearly 15 miles according to my wife’s step-tracker. She announced the distance to everyone. Some of the cadets suddenly start showing signs of fatigue. It’ll get better after dinner!
Throughout this adventure, we took the opportunity to reflect on what we had seen and experienced. We talked about how it made each person feel. We saw a tremendous amount over the week we spent in France. We interacted with some of the best people one could ever be blessed to be acquainted with. Irene Duvivier is an absolute gem and we hope to continue our friendship well into the future. We would not have been able to experience France in depth as we did without our great friend, Dom Launay. He committed himself to ensuring that our cadets — indeed our entire group — grew a greater understanding of France’s history as well as the inseparable closeness of our countries. France was our closest ally during our revolution and they have remained so. They have assisted us and we them — and it will continue as long as there are freedom-loving people in each of our countries.
Richmond Army JROTC Raiders on the airplane home from France after an extremely rewarding tour of France’s battlefields.
I have grown, individually, from this experience. Not only by seeing additional things that I had not previously had the honor of seeing, but by seeing it all fresh through the eyes of several who had never been there. Bryan Wilson, Chason Wilson’s dad, was along as a chaperone and I thoroughly enjoyed observing him as he soaked in all the history, culture and knowledge. As did I enjoy watching the cadets as they realized the gravity of what our forefathers committed for us — they gave their todays for our tomorrows. I know now, more than ever, that our flag stands for liberty. Vive la Liberte!
Retired Army Lt. Col. Jon Ring, JROTC instructor at Richmond Senior High School, is a member of the Liberty Jump Team and recently participated in events commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. See the “Dispatches from Normandy” series in the Lifestyles section of the RO.