WASHINGTON, DC, Sep 12 — How’s this for a 21st century way to entertain your kids– A Disneyland-like theme park on the site of what was arguably the bloodiest battle of World War II, Operation Overlord better known as D-Day. It commenced on the sixth of June 1944. And now a new conflict has emerged over plans for an enterprise called the Tribute to the Heroes project [Hommage aux Héros].
According to the website History on the Net, on D-Day, 1,465 American soldiers of the First U.S. Army were killed on the beaches of Normandy, 1,928 went missing and 6,603 were wounded. “The after-action report of U.S. VII Corps (ending 1 July) showed 22,119 casualties including 2,811 killed, 5,665 missing, 79 prisoners, and 13,564 wounded, including paratroopers.” It is estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 British soldiers died that day and that Canadian soldiers suffered nearly 1,000 casualties, including at least 335 who were killed.
President Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael, believes that Normandy is hallowed ground that already attracts fervent tourists. One estimate is that some 48 millions of grateful and respectful visitors tour the site annually. In an interview with Newsmax, he put it this way: “It is a religious experience to walk those beaches. This is a tremendous disservice to history. World War II wasn’t a game … The area is pure, literally pure. Take them to Normandy. Take your family for a week, five days, like I did. See it, walk it, watch it, learn it. Museums tell you a story. You don’t have to go to a theme park. You don’t tell the story of Normandy with a theme park. Start selling Normandy other than trying to get kids to want to come to a theme park to ride a roller-coaster. World War II wasn’t a roller-coaster.”
Michael E. Haskew is editor of WWII History Magazine. He wrote a piece for the Warfare History Network, pointing out that “Those young men who landed on the windswept Normandy beaches in 1944 were certainly not seeking the kind of ordeal that awaited them. But they went anyway, and the concept of a moneymaking venture that would essentially exploit their life-and-death experience is simply repugnant.
Opponents of the project are already mounting an offensive, and according to the Daily Mail a petition seeking to quash the theme park project has gained momentum. A spokesman for the French National Research Group, an organization of historians, condemned the proposed venture, saying, ‘The Normandy landings is a page in the history of France which should be respected…’ [it] lacks the respect for the veterans and those killed during the Normandy landings and the battle that followed’.”
The British newspaper, The Guardian, says a “go-no-go” decision for the theme park will be made in early October. At stake for the business group behind the Hommage aux Héros project is a money making venture that hopes to attract 600,000 visitors annually, each one of them paying about $33 for the privilege — just short of $20,000,000.
The Guardian quotes Sorbonne professor Bertrand Legendre who is leading the resistance to the Hommage plan. In Legendre’s words: “They [the developers] talk about creating the ‘wow factor’ of a ‘sensational show’ that will take place near the beaches and cemeteries of Normandy, which seems fundamentally immoral and indecent. The ethical principle of this commercialization of history is extremely shocking. We the children, grandchildren and loved ones of the American, British, and Canadian soldiers who faced the enemy fire wish to register our firm opposition to the envisaged Hommage aux Héros theme park. We are appalled that their memory should be treated as a tourist attraction … the eagerness of the promoters for a ‘wow factor’ is absolutely objectionable. Make no mistake. The passing on of memories is seen here as no more than a business opportunity … to give this project the go-ahead would demean and devalue pain and sacrifice and present our fallen loved ones as mere curiosities in a money-grubbing entertainment venture.”