Memorial Day is just a few days away. And so is the sixty-fourth anniversary of D-Day. On the morning of June 6, 1944 Allied Forces landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of Europe. Americans landed on beaches code named Utah and Omaha. British and Canadian Forces were also heavily engaged, landing at other beaches code-named Juno, Sword, and Gold. As everyone knows, Utah Beach was a veritable cakewalk, and Omaha Beach was a near disaster.
In 2001, Nancy and I made a trip to Italy, France and Ireland. We came up from Italy to Provence and spent a few days there soaking up the nice spring weather before going up to sopping wet Normandy. I was mightily impressed with the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and wanted to see Omaha Beach. The beach itself was somewhat of an anti-climax; there isn't much there excepting the monument pictured above. Some of the mulberries, or artificial harbours, may still be visible at low tide. Once I stepped out onto the beach itself, things were different. It was very unsettling to walk along Omaha Beach and know that some ten thousand soldiers had died in that very sand 57 years before.
The visit to Normandy was fascinating. We went to the D-Day museum, a wonderful accumulation of artifacts from WWII and D-Day. We visited the Pointe du Hoc, the scene of a very stirring and heroic, but ultimately almost pointless battle. Over at Utah Beach is the Museum of the Occupation that tells the story of French life under the occupation of the Nazis. Nancy found this museum especially interesting. And we went to Colleville-sur-Mer, the scene of the opening and closing of the movie "Saving Private Ryan", and of course, the final resting place of ten thousand American soldiers. Colleville is a stone's throw from Omaha Beach.
The cemetery itself is now American soil, granted to the U.S. by the French people. The administrator is an American, but all the workers are French and there is nowhere on earth a place better cared for. Not one blade of grass was out of place. The white crosses are interspersed with occasional stars of David, as they were when they came ashore on June 6, 1944. The names of the soldiers are carved on the markers which all face west, towards home. We wandered through the markers looking at the names and their hometowns. They had names that were Jewish, Irish, English, Polish and were from Alabama, New York, Idaho and California. They came from big towns, like Boston, and towns you've never heard of. But they all ended up in the same place. I don't think I have ever been to a place that was more emotional for me. I've been to D.C. and seen the capitol, the White House, Washington and Lincoln monuments and I've watched Old Faithful erupt, and gazed across the Grand Canyon. I've been to Civil War battlefields, Antietam, called the bloodiest day in American History. But nothing has been more moving than Colleville-sur-Mer. Perhaps because of the sheer number of crosses in the cemetery, but mostly because some of the survivors D-Day on Omaha Beach are still alive and it is not ancient history.