Saturday, May 26, 2012

D-Day beaches, Normandy France.

"We shot at everything that moved. The beach was soon covered with the bodies of American soldiers."
- German soldier Franz Gockel, writing to his family on June 10, 1944, about the landings on Omaha Beach four days earlier.

"There was another guy beside me and we were the first two off that boat. I went immediately into the water. It was shallow enough that I was able to get up. There was nothing. No bodies - because we were the bodies."
- Michael Accordino, who landed in the first wave on Omaha with Company A of U.S. Army's 299th Engineer Combat Battalion.

"Normandy is marked by the landings. It is inscribed in people's hearts, in memories, in stone, in rebuilding, in memorial plaques, in street names, everywhere."
- Rev. Rene-Denis Lemaigre, priest of Lisieux.

Toms’ Take:

If I were King for the day, I would require everyone from the age of 15 to 20 to visit three locations as part of their US citizenship.  The first would be Washington DC, including the museums, the mall, (not shopping) the monuments, capital building and more. So much of our nation’s history is told here. The second location would be Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii.   It is a very moving experience to visit the USS Arizona Memorial and to be where the start of US involvement in WWII began. A short distance away is the USS Missouri where later, the end of the war was heralded by the Japanese signing of surrender documents.  Again, there is so much history all in one place.  The third requirement would be visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy France. 

When we planned our trip to France and Belgium, Sandy asked what I was interested in seeing on the trip and I only had three requests:  drink Belgian beer with my buddy Jim; eat Belgian chocolate; and visit Normandy and the D-Day beaches.  I’m a history buff and as such, I have always wanted to visit Normandy.  I have read many books and seen many movies and documentaries about Normandy and in my mind; I thought I would be emotionally prepared for the experience. 

We had enjoyed our week on LeBoat and now were prepared to begin the next leg of our journey, Normandy and Belgium.  We drove through the Normandy countryside on our way to the D-Day beaches and as we got closer, we noticed homes and businesses flying American flags.  It was touching to see and as we wound through the final miles to the beaches, I started to recognize the names of villages where famous battles had taken place and without warning, I began to get a lump in my throat.  Was it because I couldn’t believe I was finally here, or was it something else?  We rounded a corner on a country road and there before us was the village of St. Mere Eglise, proudly boasting a sign that read;”Viva 82nd Airborne, First Village liberated in France”. Both French and American flags were proudly flying over this sign, the gateway to the village.  Seeing this sign and the flags, still declaring an American victory from 65 years earlier, gave all of us a start.  We did not expect this!

We drove on to Utah Beach and parked in the assigned lots.  As we looked out over the bluff and onto the beach, I had a hard time imagining how it must have looked on June 6, 1944.  The day we visited the weather was beautiful – the sun was shining and the wind was relatively calm.  With the exception of the sand-buried bunkers this could have been any beach on the California coast. The lump in my throat got bigger.  We moved on to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery where there is a wonderful museum filled with many interesting stories, pictures and historical information.  We stopped to tour the museum and cemetery and as I exited the museum I walked to the handrail that ran along the bluff and looked down on Omaha Beach.  I was suddenly taken with the contrast of what I saw before me today compared with what I just seen in the museum photos. 

Many of us have seen the pictures of June 6th 1944, photos depicting young soldiers jumping off of transport boats and struggling through the cold ocean water, rushing to reach the beach while dodging bullets and navigating through utter chaos to battle the German forces.  It was a gruesome scene to imagine and yet, here I stood today looking down on a beautiful beach and watching couples walking in the soft sand while families were picnicking and flying kites.  This is what peace should look like. 

After staring at the beach and imagining what it must have looked like on June 6 and knowing what those young scared boys had to endure, coming up that beach cold, wet, and sea sick and injured, I felt the ever-present lump in my throat grow bigger.  After a few moments of reflection, I turned and walked down the path to the cemetery and as I saw the rows and rows of white crosses come into view, I had to stop and just look.  There are no words to describe what those crosses, all neatly organized with Omaha Beach shining in the background, look like.   There are nearly ten thousand service men and women buried here.  I don’t know one person in that cemetery – I have no family members in the cemetery and I do not personally know anyone else who has relatives buried here.    I have no connection at all with any of the Americans buried here other than our country of birth.  And yet, the feeling of personal loss is overwhelming.  There are names like Martinez, Andersen, O’Neal and home states listed such as Texas, Illinois, and Wyoming making me realize the scope and span of the American sacrifice.  The names and states reminded me that young men and women from varying backgrounds and representing the diversity of the United States are buried here.   There is not an inch of our nation that wasn’t impacted by that day. 

I walked through the many rows, reading the names and states and contemplating the sufferings of those buried beneath each cross when suddenly, I encountered a white marble cross with no name or state listed, simply stating:   “Here rest in honored glory a comrade in arms, Known but to God.”  I finally understood the reason for the lump in my throat.

Thank you, those who paid this ultimate price. 

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