Each time he lifted his head out of the water to breathe, Mike Wisecup glanced sideways at the towering bluffs along Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Swimming parallel to shore 800 meters out to sea, he imagined the German casements and gun positions that fortified the cliffs during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and the perils faced by Allied forces in the water and sand below.
“I have read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies about D-Day, but nothing replaces physically being there to understand what they were up against. Pictures and books cannot replicate the scale and size of the challenges,” said Wisecup, a former Navy SEAL and Colby’s vice president and Harold Alfond Director of Athletics.
“There was no hiding on this beach. It was wide open, and they were exposed the entire time against a well-fortified enemy.”
A combat veteran with extensive operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Wisecup visited Omaha Beach and other historic sites of Normandy during an August tour arranged by the National Navy SEAL Museum and the World War II Museum. An endurance swimmer, Wisecup participated in a five-kilometer swim to honor the military heroes from the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Units and the Naval Combat Demolition Units, precursors to the Navy SEALs.
The Frogmen of World War II, as they were known, often went to battle with only Navy-issued swim trunks, a facemask, a knife, and a pistol. For D-Day, their mission was to clear obstacles from the water and beach in advance of the invasion. For this mission, their gear also included heavy bags of explosives.
Out of a force of 207, 37 were killed and 71 were wounded, a 52-percent casualty rate and the single bloodiest day in Naval Special Warfare history.
Wisecup participated in the trip with 12 other former SEALs. “There were guys from Vietnam to my era in the Global War on Terror, and yet despite the generational difference our common experiences within the SEAL teams made us quick friends and teammates,” he said. Six of the SEALs, including one double amputee, completed the swim. Wisecup, who prepared by swimming laps in the Colby pool, partnered with a 72-year-old Vietnam-era SEAL. They completed their swim in just under 90 minutes.
The group had planned a longer swim and hoped to climb the 80-meter sheer cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, which Army Rangers scaled on D-Day, as part of their tribute. Bad weather forced a change in plans. Still, Wisecup came away awed by the sacrifice and courage of his military predecessors and the overall serenity of the place more than 70 years later.
He spoke of his experience, and his service, in honor of Veterans Day and all Colby alumni, students, faculty, and staff who have served. Colby alumni have served in every major war since the College’s founding, and 60 Colby alumni died in World War II. Their names are carved in the stone base of the flagpole on Miller Lawn, along with the names of other service members from Colby who have died during other conflicts.
“Like anyone who has ever visited the battlefields of Normandy, I had an amazing experience. It was almost strange to be standing on this beautiful beach with kids playing and swimming, birds chirping, and cows grazing in the fields beyond the cliffs,” he said. “It was as peaceful as could be. But, for a few days in June of 1944, this place was hell on earth and an utter wasteland.”
The experience, he said, was emotional and moving, and it made him more deeply appreciate what Allied forces were able to accomplish.
“I have been in hostile territory before, and I know what it is like to be at mortal risk,” he said. “To see the terrain at Normandy and know what it is like from a firsthand perspective, I am truly amazed by what they did and what they had to endure.”
From the military to Mayflower Hill
Wisecup had a 20-year career as a Navy SEAL officer, after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1998. During his career, he led a variety of small and large joint and multinational units in combat and peacetime and multi-agency task forces focused on some of the most pressing national security issues of our time.
Additionally, he earned an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute for Technology and Management in Mumbai, India. He is a community volunteer, and he was honored as Maine Volunteer of the Year by the Maine Commission on Community Service for his work with Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses.
He came to Mayflower Hill directly from the military. “My last day in the Navy was my first day at Colby,” said Wisecup, whose initial post at the College was as the inaugural presidential leadership fellow in the Office of the President. Before being named the Harold Alfond Director of Athletics on Nov. 1, 2019, he served as the College’s vice president for strategic initiatives.
His military experience is always close at hand at Colby. He keeps mementos from his service, including flags, medals, and other honors, in his office at the Harold Alfond Athletics and Recreation Center. Among his many decorations are the Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal with Valor, and the Purple Heart.
On Halloween, he appeared in his administrative suite dressed in fatigues, boots, and a camouflage vest. “This is what I feel like inside every day,” he said as he departed for an event with the volleyball team, “but I only get to show it on the outside once a year.”
In his role as athletics director, he uses lessons learned from his own military experiences when addressing students about overcoming adversity and succeeding—on the field of play, in the classroom, and in life. Noting that students have faced plenty of adversity in recent years, Wisecup shared a saying in the military: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. After that, Wisecup said, it’s up to the individual and their teammates to adapt and overcome these adverse situations.
“At Normandy, I saw that on a scale I had never seen before. The reasons for success on D-Day, or in any skirmish or battle, comes down to individuals and leaders figuring it out and adapting,” he said.
Another lasting impression from Normandy was the vital importance of innovation and teamwork. The Allies accomplished many tactical firsts during the invasion, including dropping more than 10,000 airborne troops behind enemy lines, figuring out how to float tanks, building amphibious landing craft for more than 130,000 troops, and creating deceptions to confuse the enemy.
As much as the Battle of Normandy represented a military victory for Allied forces, it also was an unprecedented feat of creativity and human spirit. The coordinated effort took years to plan and implement, and then it had to be adjusted to accommodate the circumstances of the day and crises as they unfolded.
“If we were going to defeat the enemy, all these planners and individuals behind the scenes had to come up with creative solutions that had never been tried before. They had to try new things, be innovative, and think differently to create solutions to these unique problems. They had to develop leaders at the lowest level to act in the absence of higher commanders,” he said.
Speaking to first-year student athletes in the bleachers of the football field at the start of the year, Wisecup reminded them of the importance and value of their athletic experience. The character and qualities that students develop on a field of competition will be what wins the day in the battles ahead, Wisecup told the students.
“We are not building soldiers here at Colby, but we are building citizens who learn how to overcome adversity, constantly strive for excellence, and to be good teammates.”
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