Getting to Normandy
For years the four of us (Monte, Aleta, Mona and I) have talked about visiting Normandy. Monte and Mona’s dad landed there the day after D Day; Aleta’s dad was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in WWII; and my dad served as part of the garrisoning troops in Germany in the early 50s. Given all that personal history, I suppose it’s natural that we’ve all read lots of books and watched lots of movies about WWII.
At last the day of our trip began. We met in the hotel lobby at 5:45 AM and headed down the Champs Elysees to catch our first metro of the day and then transferred to our second Metro to take us to Gare St. Lazare (St. Lazare Train Station.) There we got our Europass stamped, grabbed croissants and espresso, and watched the boards to see what our platform was to be. In a few short minutes we saw it, Platform 23. Luckily, it was close by and we made our way to the conductors for them to review our tickes. Then we had to find our coach, Coach 12, and finally our seats. We had first class tickets so we had four reserved seats, two facing two with a table in between. Now, we relaxed and enjoyed the ride. It was dark and raining for an hour or so, making it a good time to nap a bit.
After two hours we reached Caen. Off the train, down the steps, up the steps and into the station to read the boards to find our platform. Platform E this time. Down the steps, up the steps and on to the platform where our train was waiting for us. This was a local train so there were only three cars counting the engine, and it was packed with tourists like us and lots of locals. Two of us sat and two of us stood (I bet you could guess the twos!) as we made our way to Bayeux.
There we were met by Magali, our guide for the day, along with four other Americans who would be in the van with us for the next eight hours. Magali’s home is about 15 miles from Caen and her home has been in her family for many years. In fact, her home was under “The Boot” (as the locals call the German occupation) thus making her uniquely qualified to be a guide. Her and her husband are avid students of WWII history and both are tour guides for the Normandy beaches. At last Magali got us all loaded into the van and offf we headed for the Omaha Beaches to begin our tour.
Some Background on WWII
I guess it’s time for background. If you’re familiar with WWII and particularily the D Day events then you may want to skip this mini history lesson. Otherwise, read on.
WWII began in earnest in 1939. Since then, Germany had been victorius in conquering most of Europe, In 1944, Most of Europe was under The Boot except for Britain (because the Brits won the Air Battle of Britain) and Italy (which had been liberated by the Allies.) By 1944 the Allied Command devised a plan to attack German occupied France and labeled this attack as Operation Overlord. Plans for this attack involved millions of men and thousands of ships, planes and tanks. This attack was extremely secret and the Allies went to great lengths to deceive the Germans into thinking they were going to attack at Calais; i.e. At the Englilsh Channel’s narrowest point.
Fast forward to June 6th, 1944. In Normandy, the weather is horrible and the beaches are worthless for landing attack forces. The Germans weren’t too worried about an attack there; you’d have to be crazy to attack Normandy! I guess that meant the Allied command was crazy because they decided to attack under those horrible conditions and on those worthless beaches! The Allies plan called for each nation to attack separate sectors. The Brits, Canadians and Free French the attacked Juno, Sword and Gold sectors. The Americans were assigned the Omaha and Utah sectors. This battlefront was to be huge stretching over 120 miles….the distance between between St. Louis and Decatur.
The battle began shortly after midnight on June 6th with the dropoff of over 24,000 paratroopers. Some of these drops went well, but many went horribly wrong with troops landing in water and immediately drowning in their silks and equipment. Many landed off target and had to make their way behind enemy lines to attempt to complete their mission. Paratroop casualities were over 40%. The picture below shows a monument to John Steele. An American paratrooper whose parachute caught on the church spire as he attemtped to land.
At 6:30 in the morning, the invasion of amphibious troops and equipment began.
We Tour Omaha Beach
Now, I’ll go back to talking about our tour and what happened to the Americans as they attacked the Omaha and Utah sectors.
After driving about 30 minutes we came to one of the Omaha beaches. We got out of the van and walked in the sand to the water’s edge. We turned shoreward and could see the German bunkers still on the cliffs behind us. When the Americans approached this beach at 6:30 AM they were all seasick from the horrible lurching of their landing craft. Their landing craft had to avoid the many mines and obstacles in the water. Once out of the landing craft the GIs were met with a murderous crossfire from the German bunkers. Casualaties in that first hour were 90%.
Things had gone horribly wrong on Omaha beach…so wrong that the commanders contemplated withdrawing from this sector. In spite of all that the GIs kept moving forward…it was that or die in the sand. A few finally made it across the beach and then began the climb up the cliffs to take out the German bunkers and pillboxes…one by one. After many many hours of savage and brutal battle the Americans were victorious….but at a huge cost. So many casualities here that the water was red with blood after the battle.
As Magali recounted these events it was impossible to listen without tears for the many lives lost here. As we stood here we could almost feel the presence of so many fallen brave young men. The averaage age of these troops was 23, meaning there were many who were just teenagers.
The American Cemetery
Our next stop was the American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville on a bluff overlooking Omaha. Here is the final resting place for over 9000 GIs. Here you will see the crosses and the Stars of David of many of our fallen GIs. There are 42 pairs of brothers interred here, including the brothers who inspired the “Band of Brothers” movie. Here also lies the son of an American president: Theodore Roosevelt Jr. who was a Brigadier General. He insisted on landing with his troops and died of a heart attack a few days after the invasion. Also here are over hundreds of crosses inscribed with “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
This cemetery is a somber place and there is no way to visit here without being deeply emotionally touched. This is American soil. It is hallowed soil.
Point du Hoc
The mood was quiet in the van as we went to our next stop…Point du Hoc…which is a hook-shaped cliff between the Utah and Omaha beaches. Here approximately 250 American Rangers had to scale near-verticle cliffs to take out the German defenses entrenched above. They had to climb those cliffs under deadly German fire from above as Allied bombs were blasting the defenses above.
Point du Hoc is still cratered from the huge bomb blasts and incredibly there are still intact German bunkers which withstood the bombs. We were able to go into one of those bunkers and look out the port….wondering how many Americans were killed from this vantage. (The picture below is taken from inside the bunker looking out through the gun portal.)
The Utah Beaches
Next we visited the Utah beaches. Here the coast is more gradual so our troops didn’t have to climb cliffs to acheive their goal thus making the victory here much easier than Omaha. However, the landing didn’t occur without loss of American lives….many of which happened when paratroopers landed in marshes that were thought to be dry land. In fact, they were marshes with tall grass growing in the water. Many paratroopers drowned here in the tangle of their silks and equipment.
As I said, this battlefront is huge. We drove 30 and 40 minutes between locations. During the drive you see monument after monument dedicated to acts of valor and sometimes dedicated to acts of kindness. Sometimes the monuments are decided to a battalion and sometimes to an individual. It’s clear that the French remember what happened here and the cost in American lives.
Our last stop was at a small church built in the 1100s. Here, Monte, Aleta and Mona met the Mayor of the village and we learned the story of this little church. In June of 1944 two American paratrooper medics set up an aide station here where they cared for 80 injured troops and a local child. The church was then captured by the Germans and the troops continued to care for the injured, including Germans. Druing this time all the stained glass windows of the church were blown out. In the subsequent years those windows were replaced. Imagine our amazement as we looked at this stained glass window in this 12th century church.
There is a common perception that the French don’t like Americans. We have never encountered any dislike in any of our visits. But most of all…not this one. Here the Americans are deeply appreciated for the sacrafices they made for the French. It was all summed up for me the night after we visited Normandy. At the Moulin Rouge we sat with a young French couple. He spoke English and we found that he had recently visited Normandy. We commented on how somber the battlefields and cemeteries were. He said, “That’s not my word for it. My word for Normandy is “wonderful.” It is so wonderful that so many from so far away came to save my country and my people.” …I can’t add to that.
Our visit to Normandy was incredible. We learned so much and we felt even more. However, one thing was very disturbing. The four other Americans on the tour were in their 20s and 30s. They knew virtually nothing about WWII. And, it appeared by their comments and questions that they learned nothing. We all fear that many Americans are like this, more focused on their iStuff, video games and petty politics than the reality of what real evil can do in this world if left unchecked. We need to make sure we remember the evil that almost took over the world in the 1940s, otherwise we fear it may happen again.
Let us not forget.