Normandy visit ‘beyond profound’ for UM’s Harbaugh

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Colleville-Sur-Mer, France — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh rested his right hand on his father Jack’s shoulder, comforting him as he became overcome by emotion during a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Harbaugh has taken his team to Europe for the second straight year, out-of-the-box thinking for a coach who insists he wants to put the college back into college football. The Wolverines traveled to Rome last year and attended a Papal audience, a highlight for all who participated. They currently are in Paris for a week of sightseeing but took a side trip three hours away to northwest France to visit Normandy, where during World War II the Allied invasion of western Europe was launched on June 6, 1944.

There were simultaneous landings of U.S., British and Canadian forces on five beachheads in Normandy.

The Michigan team began its trip at the Memorial de Caen museum, then visited Arromanches-les-Bains where an artificial port was installed to unload heavy equipment during the launch of the invasion and then the American Cemetery, established by the U.S. Army on June 8, 1944 as the first American cemetery in Europe during World War II.

Michigan held an official ceremony at the bronze “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” sculpture within the semicircular colonnade. Players and staff were chosen to carry American and Michigan flags, a large blue flower arrangement with maize flowers forming a Block M was placed at the base of the sculpture, and the entire Michigan traveling party was given either an iris or a yellow rose to place at any of the memorial areas.

Jim Harbaugh and his father were moved by the experience.

“My dad, my daughter (Addie), our teammates, to be here with family, it’s a blessing,” Harbaugh said.

Jack Harbaugh bowed his head and teared up. His son put his hand on his shoulder.

“It’s what family is all about,” Jack Harbaugh said. “It’s one of those great moments to share with family.”

For Jack, this was a trip he had always hoped to make.

“Tremendously sobering for me,” he said. “I remember two years ago when Jim talked about trips that he planned for the football team, we talked about Paris and we talked about Normandy. This is what I’ve truly been looking forward to.

“I think I was 5 years old when this all occurred. Too young maybe to remember it at that time. But the next 73 years, this is what I’ve looked forward to being a part of and standing on this hallowed ground.”

Jack Harbaugh does not have a personal connection to anyone who participated in the Normandy invasion. But they walked around the grounds visiting the graves.

“We looked at the crosses and you’d see a state. The state of Ohio, that’s a brother,” Jack said. “That’s where we’re from. It pulled at you a little bit because you realized at my age that was just a few years older than me that they served. I wasn’t a real far in age from those soldiers.”

Emotion was thick for everyone attending the ceremony. From the Star-Spangled Banner to, Taps, to a moment of silence, it was spectacularly moving.

“When the Star-Spangled Banner was being played and Taps were being played, (my wife) Jackie and I were standing on the steps looking up at this circle of our University of Michigan football team,” Jack Harbaugh said, “they’re 19, 20, 21, maybe 22 or 23, that’s what happened here 73 years ago.

“Those same-aged young men put it on the line for their country and for their fellow soldiers. I have to think that emotion went through them and they understood that, maybe for the first time. It can’t be described in words.”

Jim Harbaugh has said he doesn’t believe all learning is done in a classroom or on the football field. That is why he finds value in overseas trips.

“You can see the emotion in them,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve taken classes, they’ve read about it. To walk on the beach and see the adversity, that took it to a whole ’nother level of adversity that the soldiers were facing, really on both sides — 150,000 — Michigan Stadium and a half — coming from this way, another 150,000 coming from the other way. Each with the same resolve and intentions.”

Harbaugh said that anyone who visits Normandy and the cemetery and the tributes to those who lost their lives here, would learn plenty about how the world should work.

“It was moving, it was beyond powerful and profound,” Harbaugh said. “So many emotions you have. You get taught it in your history classes, you can talk about it around your coffee table, to see it up close and read the names on the graves, the states that they’re from, just express our gratitude.

“And I hope the families and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those who fought here understand how grateful we are to what they accomplished and what they won. And the other thing is, you think about wars, and the politicians that start ’em, don’t fight in ’em. You’d think they could come here and it would be enough to not create ’em. No more wars.”

“No more wars,” Jack Harbaugh said, echoing his son.