We’ve all heard about the D-Day invasion of Normandy, in June of 1944. We’ve all seen the movie, Saving Private Ryan. How many of you have watched, Band of Brothers? I’m a visual and sensual type of guy, so when the opportunity to visit the actual beaches and cemetery of these historic grounds presented itself, I took it.
Situated about 45 minutes east of the Normandy coastline, I made my home in the commune of Caen, France for the next couple of days. My first impressions of the city: 1.) the French language reigns supreme here and 2.) it looks very modernized. I would later find out that over 80% of the city had been destroyed during the battle of Normandy. Interestingly enough, it was the Canadian and British armies who fought a majority of this fight. Nearby a church stands, St. Étienne-Le-Vieux, a shell of its former self. A reminder, of the casualties of war.
It was a 20 minute walk from the train station to my Air B&B, and it had been a long day of travel. My host had run into a personal issue, so I had to wait about an hour till I got to settle in. I tucked myself into a cozy pre-made sushi restaurant and sat down to eat. After a brief conversation with a friend stateside about my experiences in Amsterdam, something internally hit me. I immediately felt a rush of disappointment, a wave of sadness engulfed me. Here I was 3,500 miles from home, just beginning an adventure many dream about, and my internal world was crashing down. It would take me some time to figure out why this all was happening, but I would. At least I thought I would. When I was finally able to enter my room, I turned the corner and a medium-sized Buddha statue was staring me right in the face. I needed to see that. I needed a reminder to slow myself down, to ground myself. I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night, but awoke the next day very eager to get out and immerse myself into my surroundings.
“This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success.” ~ General Dwight D Eisenhower
My private guide for the day Igor, picked me up prompt and early. Off we headed to our first stop, the village of Sainte-Mère-Église. This would be the site of the first town liberated in the invasion. If you look up towards the top of the church, you’ll see a white object. John Steele of the 82nd Airborne division lay stranded here for 2 hours, after his parachute got snagged on one of the pinnacles of the tower. He survived by playing dead.
Before we hit the beaches, we stopped off at a local restaurant for lunch. There my guide and I would swap stories as I tried a local liquor called, Calvados. A very strong apple brandy, it was a favorite of not only the locals, but also the German soldiers who occupied the area during that time.
The first beach head we would land at, would be Utah. This would mark the western most side of the invasion. Due to the tide, we were unable to walk the beach, but it was here I would get my first sense of what the soldiers had run up against.
Out next stop would take us to Pointe du Hoc. This cliff-side along the English Channel, would mark a formidable stronghold by the German Army. American soldiers were tasked with scaling these cliffs while under enemy fire, in an attempt to overtake their position. Honestly, words can’t describe the scene of actually being here. The landscape still displaying craters, from an American pre bomb strike. What was going on in the minds of the American 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions as they made their way up the cliff walls?
“There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. Nothing to do with nature, unless you count human nature.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver
With the sun beginning to slowly set on the short winter day, we headed over to the Normandy American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha beach. There were only a few other individuals walking the grounds, so it made for a very personal and moving experience. The lives of 9,385 soldiers who lost their lives, mostly during the invasion, lay in eternal rest here. An additional 1,557 who remain missing in action, are memorialized on a wall.
“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.” ~ Colonel George A. Taylor
Our last and final stop of the day would land us on the bloodiest beach of all the battles, Omaha. You can watch all the movies, see all the documentaries, read all the books, but nothing can match the visual of standing on the bluff overlooking the beach. It’s at this point reality sinks in, the first few waves of soldiers, had no chance. They were being led directly into a slaughter-house. I closed my eyes and began to imagine what the scene must have looked like. I could feel a chill in the air. Machine gun bullets sprayed the beach, fire bombs rained from the sky, mines exploded all around. On top of the heavy artillery, troops had to make their way through various obstacles set up by the German defenders. Those lucky enough to make it across the beach, then faced an uphill climb through thorn bushes and dense vegetation. Did Eisenhower know he’d be sentencing the first few waves of troops to their death? I believe so, but it’s open to debate.
My mind began to process the events of the day on the ride back to Caen. I had experienced so much, in just a short amount of time. You could easily spend at least 5 to 7 days out there.
I returned back to my apartment around dinner time, and really didn’t feel like attempting to socialize with anyone. I walked up the block, bought a few things from the supermarket and enjoyed a healthy meal for the first time since I left home. I sat on the couch and my thoughts began to drift back to all the internal muck that was beginning to re-surface. Up early once again for a train departure, I sloshed my way through rainy skies as dawn approached.
Prochain arrêt, gare de Strasbourg …