Normandy, in the Footsteps of Heroes – July 14th
As Phillip and I drive through the rural French countryside, we chat about our grandfathers and the pieces of “real life” history that they’ve told us about over the years. My grandfather landed at Omaha Beach in 1944, and Phillip’s grandfather at Utah Beach, just up the coastline. We are both excited to see and touch a real piece of history, and in a sense get a glimpse of our grandfathers in another life.
Our first stop is the Le Memorial in Caen, known to Americans as the Peace Museum. This memorial is excellently put together, and should be the first stop for any visitors to the Normandy region. The exhibits outline how events were orchestrated between World War I and the rise of the Nazi Party, then each country’s entrance into World War II and the timeline of events that progressed throughout the conflict until its end. The museum illustrates the history in a very tangible way and brings deeper understanding to the motives of all parties involved and their actions.
Leaving the memorial with a new understanding, we headed for Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. As we arrived and gazed from the bluffs over the beach, we were taken by surprise by what we saw. As most Americans likely do, I’ve always pictured the beaches of Normandy as a quiet place of solitude, held in respect for those men who gave their lives to liberate others. However, Omaha Beach was filled with people on holiday, enjoying this beach as they would any other. It seemed strange, but I suppose it is still a beach and is accessible to any who wish to visit.
We walked down the bluffs to the beach and gazed for miles along its coastline, trying to envision the waters filled with mines and other obstacles of sabotage, the great warships anchored just offshore and men taking the beach in droves. I knelt in the sand to collect a sample to take home, and as I scooped it into my plastic bag I thought about all the men who died here, on this very sand. History recalls the battle as “Bloody Omaha” for the great sacrifice that was made here, and the recounting tells how the water and sand were stained red from the blood that was shed. Now it is once again golden and soft. So much has changed in 70 years.
We huffed and puffed our way back up the hill, imagining how difficult it must have been to make the same climb as a soldier, soaking wet and loaded down with heavy equipment, taking extremely heavy fire from the enemy nests above. What a day of terror and bravery that must have been, soldiers striving to bring justice to a land where evil prevailed, as all around them their friends and fellow soldiers fell in the ultimate sacrifice.
Making our way up to the cemetery, we silently walked through row after row of buried soldiers, many graves marked as unknown. How many families waited for news of their loved ones, never to receive a definite answer? Though there are no names on some headstones, they are nonetheless buried with honor and dignity, and remembered and loved by those who knew them.
Before leaving we visited the memorial the French have built in honor of the Americans who gave their lives. While we were there, a group performed a ceremony to lay a wreath of flowers at the base of the memorial. The United States national anthem was played, followed by Taps. As I stood there with tears in my eyes overlooking the seemingly endless white crosses, I surveyed the crowd. I prayed that each person hearing the music understood its meaning, that the full weight of the price that had been paid was felt by every heart.
It was a quiet drive back to Paris, as we each mulled over our own thoughts about what we had seen and experienced. Knowing that both of our grandfathers had given to others out of generosity and love, that they had gone through the terror and hardship of war so that evil might be stamped out, we both felt a sense of pride and the urge to make our own lives count for such a worthy cause. Men have laid down their own lives for the good of others in years past, and that gives hope for the future. May such things always be remembered in the hearts of us who are their legacy.