Friday, July 8, 2016

Utah Beach,The American Cemetery, Omaha Beach

SACRIFICE
"THEN IT ALL CAME DOWN
TO THIS BRIEF FIRST DAY OF BATTLE
ON THE COAST OF NORMANDY,
AND, FOR SO MANY OF THEM,
IT ALL ENDED, FOR THE REST OF US,
WHAT HAS BEEN SINCE HAS NOT
BEEN THE SAME."

CAPT CHARLES CAWTHON  US ARMY 29TH INFANTRY DIVISION

When we told a fellow American we were headed to Normandy to visit WWII sites, he paused, became reverent and said he'd been there.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Emotional." He was large and strong, the kind of man we tend to believe is as rock hard as his exterior physique.

What he said would come to be true for Tony and me.

We began our Normandy WWII experience at Saint Mere Eglise. The famous D-day, June 6 1944 invasion, really began the night before for thousands of parachutists who landed in the dark of night. For those who landed at St. Mere Eglise, it was a tragic situation. Some of the village buildings were on fire and the flames illuminated the sky.  The Germans were out in full force trying to put out the fire, and for many, their journey ended before it began. 

One man's parachute caught on the church steeple where he pretended he was dead for two hours. Later, he was captured by the Germans, but soon escaped and rejoined his regiment. 

The photo below shows the memorial to the trooper.  It was a little strange to see this fake man in uniform hanging from the church, but he lived through the ordeal and that seemed to change the initial macabre feeling. Plus, it is what tourists probably come to see. Seventy-two years have passed since the invasion. When I ponder this, I am thankful to the people who keep such a sobering reminder in the middle of their village square.



Utah Beach

 I expected hordes of people given the significance of the venue, but it was quiet with plenty of space to contemplate the museum artifacts, the personal stories, the testimonies to freedom, the evidence of bravery. We read about and listened to men who had participated. Years later, they were still in awe, but the awe wasn't like a victory of an NBA championship--the men were humble, even tearful, and no one could ever forget the way it had shaped their lives.

We walked away from the museum with a clear vision of what happened on Utah Beach, one of the two beaches where the Americans landed, So when we stepped onto the actual beach, it was easy to imagine what it might have been like. We were beginning to form a picture of Operation Overload-the official name for the entire invasion. We were beginning to understand the hugeness of the allies' undertaking. 

It became even more real when we walked along a stretch of bluff with the intact remains of German batteries, once filled with Germans and canons that still remain.

We found our way off the beaten path in search of the sea. On this path we came upon a German pillbox, completely and eerily explorable; an underground ammunition storage, and a beautiful, silent beach we had all to ourselves.



The American Cemetery

To actually walk among the graves, having only seen photos, was a privilege. The names, the places, the unknown soldiers crosses, bring a feeling of reverence. It is the most beautiful, well-kept memorial I have ever seen. Every edge of grass is fine-lined; not one blade of grass was growing out of place. The serene blue of the sea below brings even more peace.

As we walked quietly, a man in front of us wore a jacket with his homeland country emblazoned on the back. I resented Deutschland (Germany) in bold black letters. If you come to an American cemetery where thousands of soldiers and one female nurse were buried because of  because of YOUR country, is it disrespectful to broadcast? I thought the man was insensitive and spoke unsavory and critical words about him.

Tony turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, "His grandfather may have died here too."


Omaha Beach

For years after the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach (where the D-Day greatest loss of lives occurred), people didn't have the heart to rebuild. It was no longer a family beach, a place to fish, a place to get away--it was a place of oppression, struggle, and death. But now, all along the shore are reminders that life must go on. Little beach cottages, restaurants, and tractors pulling in boats. Yet, it is still sparse and subdued. From all tragedy, there can be triumph; we never forget, but we can build on the knowledge of the past.

My takeaway from Normandy: It was a privilege for the men who lived to be a part of something so important, so grand, so beneficial. It is what I want for my life too--to make a difference, to step forward when the job needs to be done, to not shrink away from moral responsibility. Thankfully, most of us will never have to fight on the grand scale of Operation Overload, but then it was the small, individual actions, the cumulative, that won a war.