Monday, April 01, 2013

Normandy: Day Three & Five

Thursday was dedicated to the Battle on Omaha Beach (aka Bloody Omaha) and started with a visit to the American Cemetery.
Upon arrival, we went to the visitor center, walked through an excellent exhibit about the Omaha Beach invasion, and watched a film about some of the men buried in the cemetery. I felt it was the perfect way to personalize what we were about to see.

From there we walked to the memorial for the 1,557 soldiers with no graves and then into the cemetery which is comprised of 9,386 headstones.  The perfectly-kept cemetery land slopes down towards Omaha Beach. I really have no words for what I saw, so I will share a quote from a soldier's sister, who said "Even though I wanted to bring his body back to the US, my brother convinced me that he had fought (and given his life) for that piece of land in Normandy."

Next Joe and I went to the beach and stood imagining what it must have looked like on June 6, 1944. Nearby were a number of memorials as well as german bunkers and trenches.  Most poignant was that a number of memorials are set atop the very german bunkers that the soldiers took down.  We spent time on the Colleville-Sur-Mer side before heading to the Saint-Laurent-Sur-Mer and Vierville-Sur-Mer sides, also stopping at various memorials along the way.  I couldn't help but be touched at the outpouring of thanks that the people of Normandy pay to the D-Day soldiers.

Based on another recommendation from the guidebook, Joe and I visited the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, which was filled with artifacts and pictures from the Omaha Beach invasion.  There was also another extremely touching film that once again had me in tears.  This was the first time I had seen footage of the Rangers take Pointe du Hoc, and I also gained a new perspective into how the Allied forces treated the wounded.  There was an interview with one of the nurses who flew from England to France three times every day to treat the soldiers and take many back.  There was so much to learn and see and appreciate; my favorite parts where seeing pictures of the veterans returning to Omaha Beach for reunions.

Lastly, Joe and I visited Pointe du Hoc.  I knew little about this particular part of D-Day before visiting, and even knowing that the Americans were able to "win" this mission, I still can't understand how they were able to do it. (To quote Joe, "I can understand how they did it, but I can't understand how they did it.") The battlefield has been left untouched save for some barbed wire and observation decks.  It was unreal to see the massive craters left by Allied bombs, and the giant german bunkers that were scattered throughout the area.   It is also unreal that you can still go inside the bunkers and feel what it must have been like to be a German or an Ally.  From Pointe du Hoc, we were able to see Utah Beach, and with that both of us felt we had fully experienced the D-Day beaches.

With an hour of daylight left, we headed to Sainte Mere-Eglise to see the famous cathedral where paratrooper John Steele was caught on the steeple and played dead for two hours while destruction happened all around him.  There is a dummy paratrooper up in honor of Steele, and for me it only added to the incomprehensible ability of those men to fight and persevere.

We headed back to Bayeux and spent most of our drive and dinner discussing our thoughts on Normandy. We both agreed that we had seen far more than expected and neither of us could pick the "best" or "most impactful" sight, which we agreed was an indication of how strong the trip was.
Before leaving Bayeux on Saturday, we stopped to visit the British Cemetery.  While smaller than the American Cemetery, it was just as touching and in many ways, even more personal because each headstone revealed more about each person buried below.

If I had words to express what an experience this was for me, I would write them. But I can't think of anything to say to fully give justice to what happened in Normandy, what happened in World War II, and what happens whenever someone goes to war.  I have endless appreciation for our troops who sacrifice their lives so that the world can have freedom. So I will leave this post on that thought, a simple thank you.

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