“Where the West held together”

Last Tuesday I took a World War 2 Normandy Landing Sites tour that was focused on the American sites.  My granddaddy (the Bruce’s Dad) entered Normandy during World War 2 on D+12 with the 332nd Engineering Regiment, so seeing these sites for me was personal, aside from the obvious historical importance.
The tour van picked me up at my hotel in Bayeux.  The tour consisted of five people, including me and two sets of Mother-Son travelers. Both sons are remarkable young men, one finishing up a 2+year Peace Corps rotation and the other a US Army National Guardsman stationed in Europe. Their mothers are lovely, too.  Our guide for the day was Adrian, a young Frenchman who articulated the sites and their history especially well. It was a great group of people to get to know.

Our first stop on the tour was the German cemetery at La Cambe.  Now this might seem like a strange way to start a day focused on the American aspects of the invasion of Normandy, but it put the right perspective on things.

Each grave is marked with a clay marker that lists two soldiers. This one includes an unknown soldier.
Each grave is marked with a clay marker that lists two soldiers. This one includes an unknown soldier.

I didn’t realize so many of the Wehrmacht soldiers were not even German — up to 50% of the recruits/draftees were foreign to Germany.  Also, the average age in this cemetery is 21 years old — both because the troops were young, but also because some of the Hitler Youth who fought in France are buried here, skewing the averages.  They could have been as young as 14.

The five-cross motif is present throughout the cemetery - the sets mark off each of the grave blocks.
The five-cross motif is present throughout the cemetery – the sets mark off each of the grave blocks.
The cemetery is very symmetrical, arranged in neat blocks with a monument in the center.
The cemetery is very symmetrical, arranged in neat blocks with a monument in the center.

The cemetery, similar to the British and American cemeteries, was given in perpetuity to the German people, and collections were taken in Germany and elsewhere to build the cemetery after the war — a tree was planted in honor of each donor, and the trees line the drive up to the cemetery.

Our next stop was Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French town liberated on D-Day.

This is the main church in St Mere Ingleis -- you can see the paratrooper near the top of the spire.
This is the main church in St Mere Ingleis — you can see the paratrooper near the top of the spire.

It was made famous in the movie The Longest Day and is also the site of the Paratrooper Museum.  A mannequin paratrooper hangs off the side of the church today to represent John Steele of the 82nd Airborne, who survived his jump and capture, though he had to hang off the side of the church for a couple hours playing dead first.  He was incarcerated in the town church with the town priest and the town mayor, both of whom were active in the Resistance; Steele later escaped and rejoined his unit.  Two windows in the church commemorate the actions of the 82nd Airborne in this town.

This window was added to the church by some of the surviving paratroopers who returned to the town in later years.
This window was added to the church by some of the surviving paratroopers who returned to the town in later years.
This stained glass window was added to the church by the town to commemorate the paratroopers who liberated the town.
This stained glass window was added to the church by the town to commemorate the paratroopers who liberated the town.

The Paratrooper Museum has several exhibits with vehicles and other artifacts from the liberation of Normandy.  They have a glider reproduction you can walk through, and it really gives you a sense of the scale and the challenge these men faced.

This is a recreation of the interior of a glider that shows how many men would fit and how cramped the space was
This is a recreation of the interior of a glider that shows how many men would fit and how cramped the space was

You always hear about the paratroopers but very little about the men who rode in on the gliders. The maps were particularly fascinating to me, including one that showed the planned drop zones and where the troops were actually dropped (spoiler: nowhere close).

The lettered bubbles show the planned drop zones. The tiny dots show where the paratrooper groups actually landed.
The lettered bubbles show the planned drop zones. The tiny dots show where the paratrooper groups actually landed.

There is also a mannequin rendering of Gen.Eisenhower addressing some of the troops before the invasion started.

This is a reproduction of the famous photo of Ike addressing the troops in England before the invasion began.
This is a reproduction of the famous photo of Ike addressing the troops in England before the invasion began.
Mine sweeping was a big part of the operation in Normandy after the landings. This manual seems a little glib of my taste however.
Mine sweeping was a big part of the operation in Normandy after the landings. This manual seems a little glib of my taste however.

The museum includes a lot of pictures from the liberation and its aftermath as well as the various commemorations that have happened since.

Next we headed out to Utah Beach after a circuitous route through the French countryside.  On the way we saw some examples of the hedgerows that would have existed at that time in Normandy, which caused many delays in liberating the whole area — the foliage was so closely growing that it was virtually impossible to see around and get one’s bearings. The Allied forces had to basically take hedgerow after hedgerow.
Some adorable French children playing on Utah Beach.
Some adorable French children playing on Utah Beach.

We arrived at Utah Beach, and I was struck by how peaceful it is now. Children play there, unaware of what happened here.

This is true of so many battlefields. Although, for the Americans, Utah Beach was a great success, with only 197 casualties among the 21,000 men who came ashore there.

This memorial at Utah commemorates the Higgins Boats, which were used for the landing. Originally used during Prohibition in Louisiana to smuggle booze into the bayou, the Coast Guard made great use of them in WW2.
This memorial at Utah commemorates the Higgins Boats, which were used for the landing. Originally used during Prohibition in Louisiana to smuggle booze into the bayou, the Coast Guard made great use of them in WW2.

I know to the families of those 197 men, their loss or injury was catastrophic, but many of the other beaches suffered much greater casualty numbers. Many of the German bunkers are still there or have been used for other building projects (as basements or supports).

Another memorial includes handprints from some of the survivors of Utah Beach, made many years later at one of the anniversaries.
Another memorial includes handprints from some of the survivors of Utah Beach, made many years later at one of the anniversaries.

After a delicious cod lunch, we moved on to Pointe du Hoc, the promontory cliff between Utah and Omaha beaches.

Staring down at this cliff it's hard to imagine anyone climbing it even today.
Staring down at this cliff it’s hard to imagine anyone climbing it even today.

On D-Day, Army Rangers scaled this cliff with limited gear and captured the German battlements at the top of the cliff. Seeing the cliff now, it is hard to imagine the bravery and grit it must have taken to complete these tasks — it’s a rocky cliff that seems like it’ll fall apart if you look at it funny. I really can’t imagine climbing it now, much less with 1940s climbing gear.  You can also go into the German bunkers here and see the claustrophobic spaces the Germans and the Army Rangers would have been in at the time.

The German barbed wire still remains.
The German barbed wire still remains.
This is one of the German bunkers left at the top of the cliff
This is one of the German bunkers left at the top of the cliff

Our next stop was Omaha Beach, which is quite the popular beach destination for families, if our day there was any indication.

These two dogs were having a grand time on Omaha Beach.
These two dogs were having a grand time on Omaha Beach.

Adrian sketched in the sand the key bombardment posts and the Allied strategy for taking them out.

Adrian sketched the beach and showed us where each of the German weapons was positioned. He then sketched out the American attack plan.
Adrian sketched the beach and showed us where each of the German weapons was positioned. He then sketched out the American attack plan.

Unfortunately, currents shifted the entire plan to the east, so it was up to the men on the beach to improvise as they could. By the end of the day, the Americans had taken the beach, but not without cost.  Of the 43,250 men who came ashore, there were 3,000 casualties at Omaha.

This powerful image commemorates the men who died and survived on Omaha.
This powerful image commemorates the men who died and survived on Omaha.

After exploring the beach a bit, we went up to the German post taken by the unit now known as The Big Red One, and saw all of Omaha Beach from there.

This is what remains of the German bunker taken by the 1st Infantry Division.
This is what remains of the German bunker taken by the 1st Infantry Division.
Omaha Beach from the cliff above.
Omaha Beach from the cliff above.

Our final stop of the day was to the American cemetery in Normandy.

The landscaping is all imported from the US and is impeccable.
The landscaping at the American cemetery is all imported from the US and is impeccable.

Like the German cemetery, this land was given to the American people in perpetuity. It is managed by the same group that manages Arlington National Cemetery in DC and had certain similarities in tone. All of the plants and even the grass (Kentucky Bluegrass) are native to the US and were brought over to hallow this ground.  A wall near the entrance represents the missing in action by name, rank and home state. Each grave faces to the West, towards home.

The graves are randomly placed, not by rank or state. The birthdate is also not listed on any grave, presumably since so many of the young men lied about their age to join the Army.
The graves are randomly placed, not by rank or state. The birthdate is also not listed on any grave, presumably since so many of the young men lied about their age to join the Army.
The cemetery sits on a cliff above the sea -- it's a very calm, peaceful spot.
The cemetery sits on a cliff above the sea — it’s a very calm, peaceful spot.
This grave marks an unknown soldier - the inscription reads,
This grave marks an unknown soldier – the inscription reads, “Here rests a in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
This 22-foot statue is named,
This 22-foot statue is named, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” – it looks out over the reflecting pool and onto the graves.
You can see the colonnade pictured here if you look back east from the graves. The statue stands in the center, and on either side are maps depicting the major campaigns of the war.
You can see the colonnade pictured here if you look back east from the graves. The statue stands in the center, and on either side are maps depicting the major campaigns of the war.

I don’t know what I was expecting from my day exploring the liberation of Normandy. It certainly holds an honored place in popular culture and has been explored in Band of BrothersSaving Private RyanThe Longest Day, and many other portrayals, and it is right to celebrate the bravery of these men and women who gave so much while asking so little. Seeing each place I was struck again by how much time has passed and how little. Sites like this are meant to remind us that war is a last resort, that we should all be working toward “never again” as a principle and a reality in our world.

Title quote:  Ronald Reagan’s speech to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day

2 thoughts on ““Where the West held together”

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