Normandy. When I hear that word, I immediately think of the beaches where so many soldiers lost their lives, trying to take a toehold on the continent that had been all but engulfed by Hitler during WWII.
Between our visits to Giverny and Mont St. Michel, we stopped along the beaches of Normandy. It’s only right that being in the area, we should pay our respects to those who gave all to ensure peace and freedom in our world. It is places like this that make me feel like a World Citizen, yet very proud of our part in it.
Of course long before the Invasion of Normandy and the five campaign points of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah, the Normandy coast was a holiday destination dotted with charming seaside resort towns. Even on this cool and sometimes overcast day, families were enjoying the beaches. Some were even in the water.
We stopped first at the beach at Lion sur Mer in the Juno section of the invasion. Here local people dragged boats out to the water’s edge using their tractors. I stretched my legs and cleared my mind after riding in the car for two hours, walking along the high tide point on the beach. Automatically my eyes searched back and forth, and I found a couple of nice shells and my first scallop shell. Then mentally I chastised myself for doing something as meaningless as beachcombing on this sacred ground. But they have since become tangible remembrances of this visit.
We continued to Omaha Beach. The weather turned drizzly, evoking a somber mood. As we drove through the small villages, I could imagine combat scenes along these narrow streets with their stone houses. These walls might have concealed frightened young German boys, fighting for their lives, too.
We first paid our respects on the beach itself, this site where Americans charged ashore. I found it a place for comforting prayer. It was about an hour to closing when we went up to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. I knew I would find it horrific, but had no idea how much. Crosses and Stars of David filled the landscape. More than 9000 American soldiers are buried here. I walked to the central aisle, and just started walking toward the back of the cemetery. Row after row of headstones met my eyes. It was shocking.
At first they were just one large vista, too vast to really fathom. Then I began to search the headstones for familiar states. I found a few Wisconsin and Hawaiian soldiers, and paid special respects there.
Most of these brave soldiers, many of them just beginning their lives, died on June 6 and 7 at the start of the invasion, in the cross fire from the German bunkers on the hills. But I also began to see dates as late as December 1944, and then into 1945. One man from a bombing squad died in 1943, before the invasion – an early casualty. He was a real person – Donald B. Armstrong, from Ohio. Most of the graves had names.
But there were also the headstones of the unidentified, 307 of them, “known but to God.” That’s when I really broke down. These graves will never be claimed by a nephew or grand-daughter, never be decorated by someone who had a direct connection to them. Their descendants, if any, only know that he was lost “over there.”
In a subdued mood, I retraced my steps, walking back to the memorial at the beginning of the cemetery. The Visitor Center was already closed, and I was not able to absorb facts and figures at the moment anyway. So we spent time here.
To either side of the soaring central figure are great stone maps, one of the Normandy Invasion and the other of the movement of troops in the European Theatre. To the side of the European Theatre map, a series of smaller maps showed the Pacific operations during this truly world war. That’s where my dad served, and I finally allowed my thoughts to go there.
I’ve written about his service before. Being here in this place of so many dead, I reflected on how fortunate my family was that he survived the insanity of this war. His service took place long before he met my mother, but even then, he was thinking about a future family. In one battle in New Guinea, he saw his friend fall from a direct hit by a bullet, a bullet that would have hit him, had his buddy not been there. This friend was constantly singing “Smile for me, My Diane,” recorded just before and during the war: Tommy Dorsey in 1939, Bing Crosby in 1941, and Vic Damone in 1942. My dad held his dying friend in that battlefield and promised him he’d name his first daughter Diane to remember him. His buddy died in his arms. So you see, a part of me comes directly from this war.
If you have the chance to visit the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, or the Punchbowl or Pearl Harbor on Oahu, please consider it an honor to do so. We live free because they died.
For my other essays on WWII see:
For other posts about our rural France journey see:
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