It is Memorial Day and seems like a good time to finally synthesize the experience that is Normandy. I really believe that every American should go there – it is a reminder like few others of who we were, and who we probably still are. Young men charging off of boats to either liberate Europe or die trying. Standing on the golden sands of Omaha and Utah Beach, I could feel the Landing. It was eerie and I’m sure it happens to most who stand there. The sound echoes somehow, and somehow, the sand remembers.
The fact that the French have done an astonishing job keeping the memory of 1944 alive is both gratifying and, to some, I guess, surprising. From the first liberated house at Pegasus Bridge to the last gun placement at Omaha, there are museums, monuments and memorials that cover almost every moment of the events of June 6, 1944 and beyond. It is profoundly touching. I know that there are those who might say it is a way to capitalize, and maybe it is, but there are far too many sign that the events of 67 years ago linger in the hearts of our hosts, the French people.
We stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast in Ste. Honorine des Pertes called Les Divettes which is owned by Francois and Marie Mathy. The house had once been a billet for a German officer, and was partially destroyed by bombers during the assault on the beaches. It is less than a mile from Omaha Beach. Francois is a member of a society that places flowers on each of the 9,387 graves at the American cemetery, he participates in re-enactments of the June 6 landing, and is always ready to answer questions relating to any aspect of the landings, and he can show you photos of his family home on the beach as it looked then, and as it looks now. He took us on a very special tour of the gun emplacement American forces captured first in the battle, walking with us across rain soaked fields to show us where the heavy guns fired up the beach in deadly crossfire, and the machine gun and mortar placements. On this remote headland, the
grass and vegetation are slowly reclaiming the site, purposefully as it turns out – reminding me of nothing so much as Carl Sandburg’s poem “Grass”…”I am the grass, let me work…”
Other sites are kept in almost working order, but in this location, the earth is taking back the trenches and the concrete bunkers, slowly but surely.
We first visited the Memorial Museum at Caen, which presents a comprehensive overview of what happened June 6-7 on Gold and Sword Beaches, taken by British forces, Juno Beach, landed by the Canadians, and Omaha and Utah Beaches where the American forces came ashore. There are films and displays dedicated to all aspects of the landing, and it is a good place to start. We next visited Pegasus Bridge where British gliders were able to land and secure their bridge objective. We rapidly moved into a sort of cadence that made it possible to stand in places where great tragedy had taken place, and to appreciate the sacrifices it took to begin the process of liberating France and Europe from Nazi domination. When I say that, I mean to say that there is a limit each day to how much of this you can see. The Normandy experience is one that should be spread over several days – there is simply too much to feel to attempt to see it in a day or two.
The American Cemetery in and of itself, we did not see in a single day. You can experience the peace and serenity of the setting in an afternoon following stepping onto the actual beaches, but to try to also see the museum that is there is too much. We, fortunately, were travelling with a French friend who is very sensitive to how much a soul can stand – she would not let us do it all…we had to come back. It was a good idea.
There is so much – so much to talk about and so much to think about. Places that resonate loud in the minds of the French but are lost to generations of Americans. Bloody Corner, Pointe du Hoc, Arromanches, St. Lo, Bayeaux, Caen, – how many American students study these places? How many could name these towns and say what happened there? How many know enough to care? Fewer and fewer, I’m afraid.
French children, on the other hand, are taken there regularly. It is in their best interests never to forget, and they know it. It is in ours also, but we don’t.
I have to admit that there were a lot of details of the landing that were fuzzy for me, even as fortunate as I have been in knowing people who survived those endless days in June, 1944. Going there and standing in these places makes the history come into focus in a way nothing else really does, not conversation, not reading, not movies. I will probably go back at some point when it is not all so fresh and re-read the books and re-watch the movies…but not yet. I understand them too well just at the moment. I’m not sure I am strong enough to do that right now.
and monuments, the reminders are everywhere. At Pointe du Hoc, the bomb craters remain, with blasted chunks of concrete everywhere. Where in most places along the coast the craters have been gradually tilled into the fields of wheat and canola, the reminders at “Ranger Rock” are grim reminders.
Of course, so are thousands of pounds of rusted, blasted bits of heavy artillery…I have to say I’m not sure I’d be comfortable farming or even gardening in this area. Lord knows what will turn up with any random shovelful of dirt. But it is a testament, I suppose, to the human ability to carry on even after such devastating events, that the fields of May are beautiful and lush and holding such promise.
Of course, Normandy, 67 years later, is not all the battles of D-Day. This is the land of Camembert cheese, caramels and Calvados – and seemingly limitless fresh seafood. In the village of Port au Bessin, we watched the fishing fleet come and go, and the tide drop 20 feet and rise again, and we had a fantastic meal of fresh seafood. We sat and drank in the afternoon beneath the ancient tower.
When we finally got away from the beaches, we were able to see a few of the other treasures of Normandy – the Tapestries at Bayeux and le Mont St. Michel. Both are amazing and worth seeing – the Tapestries because they are the Tapestries – an account of war in embroidery that absolutely boggles my mind. The commentary that goes along with them brings them to life – you find yourself caught up in the story of betrayal and intrigue and war that is graphically rendered by hand. Finding the tapestries in Bayeux also reminds you how old this city is…you are suddenly out of 1944 and into medieval times.
Le Mont St. Michel, rising like a mirage from the water at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches is approached largely on foot – it takes forever to walk from the parking area, by way of example, to where one catches a bus that will take you across the causeway to the gates of the island commune. There are those who also approach across the sands at low tide – with a guide as I am given to understand there is
quick sand that should be avoided and where you can see the way in which the community would supply the community by way of a pulley system that was operated by six men walking a wheel – ingenious, and most especially if you have just walked up the steps to the abbey wondering how the groceries got delivered.
From le Mont St. Michel we crossed over into Brittany where we spent a lovely evening in St. Malo before heading back to Paris by train. The trip was amazing and we had a good time. But overwhelmingly, it was a trip about remembering, and this Memorial Day, it puts in clear relief the meaning for the holiday. It is important to remember that “Freedom is not Free,” and that it was basically just a bunch of kids that gave all to step up and help in a place many of them might not have been able to find on a map.
So this Memorial Day, to the Army, Airforce, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, thank you from this humbled and grateful American.
And to my French friend and guide, Martine, thank you so much for showing me this important piece of our shared history. Your dedication to keeping this memory alive helped me to understand the profound importance of the events of June 1944 more than anything else we encountered on our trip – and that is saying so much given how well France preserves these memories. It is a trip that will stay with me always.
Since I originally posted this blog, I have received a link to the actual Memorial Day events at the American Cemetery in Normandy. I was moved again to tears…these men (and women!) are not forgotten. Thank you!