Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
Words and images try but cannot do justice for D-Day. Today is June 6th, the anniversary of the day the Allies stormed the Normandy beaches. Less than a year ago I walked Omaha and Utah Beach. I am still haunted by it. No author, documentary, movie, music, or guide could quite sum up what happened that day. Much as I tried, it could not be fully grasped. In remembrance of June 6th and the men that fought, lived, and died, I will post a blog my wife and I wrote the night after our tour.
The Last Great Invasion
No, I am not talking about our last stop on the Europe trip, though I’m sure some Europeans would call our trek across Europe an invasion rather than a vacation. This blog is about D-Day, June 6, 1944, when thousands of incredible men stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany. What used to be a fascination that was hard to picture except through movies like Saving Private Ryan became a crystal clear reality. We spent the last 2 days of our month long Europe trip in Normandy, France -about a 2 hour train ride from Paris. It did not take long for this to become my favorite part of our trip.
Our bed and breakfast was in a small town called Bayeux, which is located somewhere between Omaha Beach (where some American infantry invaded inland against a strongly fortified German wall) and Gold Beach (where some British infantry invaded) a couple of miles off shore. Almost immediately we felt the difference of being in Normandy verses the rest of France. Generally the French are stereotyped as not really having any tolerance for Americans. Not so in the case of Bayeux or any other small town where the WWII invasion was staged. Literally every cow pasture and farm field in Normandy has a story of an Allied man who fought there. American, British, and Canadian flags fly all along all the main streets of these towns. People were warm and inviting as we shopped in their pastry store or stopped by to ask for directions. There is a feeling of, “We remember what the Allies did for us.”
My birthday present was an “American Highlights” tour on Wednesday. We met our group at 8:30 in the morning and loaded a mini-van to drive 35 minutres to our first stop: St. Mere Eglise. This is a crucial and strategic town inland from the beaches where airborne troops parachuted into. Some scenes from the movie, The Longest Day, took place in this town, including a paratrooper getting caught on the church steeple as he came down. The paratrooper survived and made it a tradition to visit the town every year after. As we walked past monuments and fences with bullet marks still remaining, our guide told stories of specific men who died in the places where we stood.
Second stop: Utah Beach. At Utah, which is located at the far western side of the invaded coastline, American forces cracked Hitler’s Atlantic Wall quite easily, only losing 17 men while taking over Utah Beach in just an hour. We walked the beach and looked back at the coast, visualizing what the soldiers must have seen. There were German pillboxes (fortifications of concrete that allowed Nazis to fire from small open spaces) and concrete bunkers (for bomb shelters and sleeping) still existing along the coastline to explore. We were amazed at the amount of space American soldiers were expected to cover after exiting their landing craft in effort to make it to the enemy. In some places, it was almost 350 yards of open beach. Many of the large metal X-shaped obstacles that Germans set up still remain on the tops of the sand dunes.
In the afternoon, we drove to “Bloody Omaha” Beach. It was here that the Americans took their hardest casualties, reaching roughly 3,000 (I think). If I remember right, more casualties were taken here on D-day than all the other four beaches – by far. It is this beach battle that Saving Private Ryan attempts to recreate. It is one thing to watch it on a TV screen; it is another to walk the beach and look up at the bluff where Nazi’s sat high and protected. I cannot describe just how high and far infantry soldiers would have had to hike to get across the beach, to the shingle wall and then scale the bluff, all with nowhere to really take cover and with enemy fire raining down on them. We found out that the reason Omaha was so bloody was that it was the one beach where Allied and Naval bombardment had failed to hit most of their targets prior to D-day. The infantry men loading off the Higgins boats at 6am that morning were expecting to encounter a weakened German military position, much like the men at Utah beach experienced that same morning. Instead, they encountered elite German forces that basically sat and watched them come in from the sea and had endless amounts of time to aim their weapons as the men approached the shore. It is a wonder that any Americans survived.
Words were short and hard to find while walking this beach, knowing there was a time when it was covered in courageous blood. We were full of awe and gratitude, longing to have been a part of something so meaningful. Possibly the most incredible reality of the day was watching little children joyfully playing in the same sand, totally unaware of the sacrifice it took to create such an opportunity. As I stood there realizing that thought, I wondered if I knew any more than the 5 year old in front of me.
We visited Point du Hoc and saw for the first time what the impact of a bomb looks like up close. This bluff looking over the beach looks like the surface of the moon covered in grass. We walked in and around crater after crater, marveling at what a weapon can do.
On Thursday, we took advantage of public transportation, taking a bus back to the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach. I think both of us just wanted to spend some more time taking in the impact of that place. The cemetery is incredible. There is the “Garden of the Missing”, where thousands of names representing men who were MIA and never found are etched in stone. Then, there is the monument which details the Normandy invasions in 20 foot stone maps. In the center stands a statue, a young person perched on the edge of a wave reaching towards the clouds in triumphant hope. It is “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Around the bottom of the statue are the words “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Then, there are the crosses. Over 9000 cover the bluff overlooking Omaha beach. The crosses seem to go on forever across the grass. It is one thing to imagine the number of men lost, it is another to see them physically represented and wonder what it would be like to see the actual man stand in the place of his individual monument. Then we learned that these are only about 25% of the Allied men who died in Normandy. The rest are buried in their hometowns.
There are so many incredible things about the invasion at Normandy. The first Special Forces, the first paratroopers, the largest amphibious operation in history, just to name a few.
Overall, I went into Normandy expecting to be able to enter into World War II and feel more apart of the stories and sacrifice that happened there. I left with the realization that I could better picture it in my head, but would never, ever be able to grasp what those men experienced and felt. We left for Europe a month ago and will return for America soon. Many of the men who stood on these beaches also left for Europe 60 years ago. We will return because they did not. As the men in Saving Private Ryan say, “Freedom does not come for free.”
With a humble and grateful heart,