When I decided to travel to France last year, and Normandy was a big part of the itinerary, I knew I would want to visit the D Day beaches. Three of my uncles served during WWI, two of them in Europe, and I suppose I felt a need to honor their service, as well as the service of others. Just to appreciate, in some small way, how significant this place and this operation was to our world. It’s one thing to read about it, and a completely different thing to experience the place. Arriving at the American cemetery at Normany, you are greeted by a sign indicating that you are on American soil. Our driver joked to say we were “back home”, but the significance of this being American soil was not lost on me. I’ve seen a number of photos from the American cemetery, but rounding a corner and seeing ALL THOSE HEADSTONES is breathtaking. 9387 servicemen (4 women) are buried here.
The grave markers list the name of the soldier, service number, and home state. There are 45 sets of brothers commemorated or buried here, 33 who are buried side-by-side. One father and son are buried along side each other. I was not expecting to find many graves marked like the one above. “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God”. There are 307 unknown burials. 307. I wandered around the cemetery looking at the names and all the places these young men were from, laid to rest a long way from home. As I wandered around, a group of French high school students took photos and hurried to catch up to their group, and I heard the sound of voices singing. I turned to make my way toward the entrance and was met there by an American chorus singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Moving and emotional to say the least. We headed over to look at the beach (Omaha), and head down to the water.
It was a long walk down, and an even longer walk up. There were no stairs on this bluff in 1944. The beach was covered with rocks as far as I could see. All those rocks. All those soldiers. I saw rocks of all sizes and colors, but the deep red rock was one I had not seen before. The water was cold, and the sky threatened to open.
We had not planned on it, but our driver knew the area very well and recommended that we go to the Canadian cemetery as well. I’m so glad we did. As we drove up, a large maple tree welcomed us. The Canadian cemetery was laid out so very differently, and beautifully- and the grave headstones listed not only the name, age and home province of the soldier, but also a space for the soldier’s family to write a message, prayer or poem. What I read made me cry, and I was, once again, reminded of the significance of this place.
Someone had left a note at one of the graves. “The family of your sister Rose thanks you for your service. Your commitment has provided freedom for generations.”Leaving the Canadian cemetery, we drove around the little towns near the beaches. When I watched Saving Private Ryan years ago, I saw the sniper scene and thought I got it. Then we drove up to this church. Not even close. We continued to a location where 3 German bunkers still stood, as they did all those years ago, overlooking the beaches. I had the chills as I walked through. Dark and cold.
One last look at the landing beaches, where pieces of the artificial harbor constructed specifically for the invasion and the days following are still visible, before we headed back to our home away from home, Honfleur. I was so glad that I visited the beaches. The history is fascinating, the landscape is beautiful and provides a full appreciation for the challenges faced by the allies. I had a strong appreciation for the sacrifices made on D Day before my visit to the beaches, but that appreciation is greater now. Reading about a place is good, going and experiencing a place is better.