Friday, June 6, 2008

64 Years Ago Today...

The tide was out, and the waves lapped gently at the undisturbed sand. A few people walked along the shore farther up, but this was no beach for sunbathing or revelry. It had only been a short six decades since this was the scene of the action on what has been called the climactic day of the 20th century.

Omaha beach was a far cry from what it was on that day. I stood at the waterline and faced inland, seeing the bluffs thousands of men had to assault. I’d seen all the D-Day movies and thought I had as good of a sense as any civilian can of what those men went through. One thing I can say now is that not a single one of those movies, be it The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan, can do justice to how far it is from the waterline to the small shale berm that offered the first real cover.

I walked across the beach, trying to imagine what it must have been like to see the cliffs not full of green vegetation, but enemy soldiers, the muzzle flashes and tracers creating a terrible light show. I realized I couldn’t do it. A split-second later, I realized I didn’t want to.

Above the beach stood roughly 10,000 solemn reminders of what the ground I stood on cost. The immaculately kept lawns and monuments at the cemetery at St. Laurent are interrupted only by white crosses and stars of David, each signifying a life lost. Most have the fallen soldier’s name and unit on them. Some do not. The etching on one marble cross I looked at read, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” I wondered who he was. Probably a lot like me.

The cemetery is not just for the soldiers killed on D-Day, but includes the dead from the invasion to the end of the war. Some graves were even marked after the cessation of hostilities.

A few rows away and maybe 30 yards down, I saw two old men. Each wore a VFW hat, and they laid a bouquet of flowers by a grave. I wanted to know their stories, and I wanted to thank them. But most of all I did not want to interrupt their reunion, such as it was, with someone they had clearly cared a great deal for. I swallowed and then headed back to my car.

It was only a short drive to Pointe du Hoc, the sheer cliffs that, on June 6, 1944, U.S. Army Rangers had scaled and taken. The battlefield has not really been altered since that day. The whole area is still scarred with craters from naval guns and bombs. Visitors can walk all over, inside what is left of the German bunkers and in the craters. As I stood in the base of a crater, the world disappeared. The hole was about 10 feet deep, and 20 feet across. How anyone could have survived such a bombardment I will never understand.

Just east of Omaha beach, on the road back to the town of Bayeux, is a German gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. The four gun bunkers still house the artillery that fired on Allied warships during the invasion. As with Pointe du Hoc, the area was open, and I was able to go in each bunker. All were damaged to some extent from aerial and naval bombardment.

As I drove to Bayeux, I was struck by how beautiful the countryside is. Stone houses dot the landscape amid fields secluded by the hedgerows that had been hell to fight through. I rolled the window down and heard the distant clanking of a cowbell. Storybook villages and stone manors passed in the distance.

The town of Bayeux itself was alive. Being so close to the anniversary of the landings, it was adorned with French, British, Canadian and American flags. Red, white and blue ribbons hung from the shops, and welcoming French citizens smiled at me as I stopped for food. I did not have time to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry, but it is displayed in the town as well.

My final stop was another cemetery, near the town of Bayeux. This one was much smaller than the American cemetery, split between British and German soldiers. It stands as a stark reminder that, even though as an American I was most interested in discovering what my countrymen had done, it was a multinational Allied force that liberated France. And while the Germans were the enemy, I couldn’t overlook the fact that some of the men buried a few yards away were really no different from me.

I left Normandy the next day. It is a land of immense natural and cultural beauty, despite the constant reminders of the life-and-death struggle of the past century, and many long before that, even. It is a place I wish everyone could see, because, though I left Normandy, Normandy will never leave me.

No comments: