DEAUVILLE, France -- After playing games on three consecutive days in Belgium, the Oklahoma men's basketball team finally got a break from the court on Sunday and made the most of the opportunity by touring the grounds of one of the most significant battles in United States war history -- World War II's Battle of Normandy. Normandy is a geographical region in northern France.
Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, Allied forces conducted an airborne assault landing that took aim at Adolf Hitler's German forces occupying Normandy. At 6:30 a.m., the Allies followed with a massive amphibious assault from the English Channel to the north. The invasions, known as "D-Day," involved the landing of more than 160,000 Allied infantry along a 50-mile stretch of coast. Although costly from a loss-of-life perspective, the invasions resulted in a firm Allied foothold in Normandy less than a month later.
On Sunday, the Sooners traveled to Omaha Beach, one of the five beachheads the Allies looked to secure with the D-Day invasions (along with Gold, Juno, Sword and Utah Beaches). The OU contingent spent time touring the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. The cemetery contains the remains of more than 9,000 American military members, most of whom were killed during the invasion of Normandy and ensuing World War II military operations. From there, the OU group made its way down to the actual shoreline where the amphibious landing occurred.
Even for a group of OU players who attended multiple educational background sessions on "D-Day" prior to leaving for Europe last week, Sunday's trip proved to be an eye-opener.
"A lot of times with a basketball team, things are enthusiastic and there's a lot of adrenaline involved," said OU senior forward Tyler Neal. "I think it was interesting to see our team in a low-key mood today, taking it all in and having an opportunity to experience something that not many people get to. The sheer number of crosses at the cemetery just hits you as far as how many people our age went and fought and gave their lives for the cause.
"We're very thankful to live in a country in which people who came before us cared enough about the future to give their lives for it."
The Sooners sought out the grave of George Washington Paden, a Sand Springs, Okla., native who was a member of the U.S. Army's 66th Infantry Division and who died on Christmas Day in 1944 when his ship, the S.S. Leopoldville, was sunk by a German U-boat in the English Channel. Paden is the grandfather of Andy Paden, former director of the OU Athletics Development Office.
"Interesting to see the players' reaction," said OU head coach Lon Kruger of the day's visit. "Kind of a sober mood. Obviously this took place well before their time, but they've heard the stories and they've heard relatives tell them stories. You can't walk into this cemetery without having some feelings about a lot of things."
After taking a picture at Paden's grave, OU players encountered Charles Hearn, a member of the U.S. Army's 94th Infantry Division who was visiting the cemetery and memorial. Hearn, who is 91 years old and served in World War II's Battle of the Bulge, has a brother named Cormack Hearn who lives in Midwest City, Okla.
"It was really cool to meet Mr. Hearn," said Neal. "You see veterans back home and you hear stories, but it's pretty rare that you get to be with a veteran on an actual battlefield. That was probably my highlight of the day."
The Sooners depart Deauville for Paris on Monday. After another educational sightseeing day on Tuesday, OU will play exhibition games on Wednesday and Thursday. The team will return to Norman on Friday.