Life is always moving—I’ve decided I’m going to make sure it’s moving in the forward direction.
This is going to be a little more serious. Today, with the help of our tour guide Michael Phillips, we toured some of the D-Day sights in Normandy. We went to, in this order, the Gun Batterie de Longres, Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Memorial and Cemetary, Le Pointe du Hoc, and the German Military Cemetary in La Cambe. Today has been one of the most amazing days I’ve had on this trip.
This may seem a little scattered, but my thoughts have been all over the place today. I’ve felt more American than ever before. I’ve felt more part of this world and enveloped in her history than I can recall. I’ve also felt more restricted by words than I’d like to admit, especially as an English major.
The Gun Batterie de Longres, our first stop, was gorgeous though besides feeling terrified and claustrophobic in the bunker, I did not really feel the history yet. that wasn’t until our next stop. My thoughts began deepening as we were told details about the invasion on June 6th, 1944, as we stood on the embankment of Omaha beach. The Allied soldiers came in early morning, at low tide, and struggled through the half mile of wet sand, along twenty-two miles of beach, as they made their way to land, where the defending troops watched it all, easily picking off the Allied soldiers as they walked across the khaki beach. About twenty-four thousand men were involved in the invasion that day. As our tour guide pointed out after explaining how this part of the warfare went, it is almost impossible to believe that only two thousand men that the US claimed were killed in this part of the invasion were the only ones. The number is already staggering but I’m led to unbelief of this claim. It had to have been more.
I stood where thousands of American men lost their lives, looking up at a view similar to the one they last saw in this life. With gunfire in front of them, taking down their friends, brothers, and fathers, and the ocean slowly pushing them forward with the incoming tide, all they could do was advance. They pushed their way through the heavy sand, weighed down by heavier equipment, and even heavier feelings of excitement and fear. Spending the last three days in a boat in a constant storm, sea-legs could not have made it any easier. Out of the worn down men who finally made it to the rocks at the embankment where I stood, many of their lives were taken quickly by mines and the constant fire from the defender troops. One wrong step was one less mine for the next man. I stood only feet from where the waves broke, facing the land as my peers faced the sea, looking at a view similar to the one Allied soldiers last saw in this life, thinking.
They could not have looked at the ocean.
They could not have looked back.
They had to have looked forward.
The feeling at that beach was peace. It was reverence. It was power. The feeling was faith. It was unity. Some of my peers took pebbles from the beach as souvenirs, for the memory, for their fathers. I did not take a pebble, or a rock, or even many pictures. I just took that feeling.
The Normandy American Cemetery is on American soil. In those one-hundred-seventy-two acres of land, people are under American law and jurisdiction. These American men are buried in American ground. Under the fresh cut grass we walked across, they were boys. They were men. Fathers, husbands, brothers. The chapel in the middle of the cemetery read across the top,
“These endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and that mankind might enjoy freedom and inherit peace.”
In the front of the cemetery was a memorial for the bodies that were never found of over fifteen hundred men.
“Comrades in arms whose resting place is known only to God. Here are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves. This is their memorial, the whole world their sepulchre.”
Maybe a hundred yards further into the cemetery from this memorial was the statue of the spirit of the American youth rising from the waves. Beneath his feet and the waves read, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
I wonder how many soldiers on that day felt as though faith was the only thing that could save them, dead or alive. I wonder how many of them found faith while they waded to their fate.
The crosses far outnumber the stars of David in the near ten-thousand grave-markers in that cemetery. There is no order to the burials, or at least that I was informed of, besides a few pairs of brothers and a father and son that rest together. While walking, I passed a group of older folks making their way through the headstones. Age must make all the difference in a place like that.
At Le Pointe du Hoc, we walked out to where the bunkers once stood, and where some still stand, where defender troops spent the majority of their time. I looked out at the same horizon they did. I stood where their boots once stood, I placed my head in the same spot they held their helmets.
I may been in these places where all these soldiers once were, I may have walked similar paths of troops from America, Russia, and Germany, but I will never feel the dirt beneath my feet as they did. I will never mimic their footsteps exactly, or tilt my head in the same way and feel as they felt. I do not carry the weight they carried. I have not seen what they saw, nor can I imagine it.
Our last stop was the German Military Cemetery in La Cambe. I can honestly say this was my favorite stop that we made. It was all stone tomb headings, with rows of trees marking the road up to the small doorway and only entrance. Germany no longer funds the upkeep of this cemetery so the trees are planted from donations so the cemetery is taken care of. For every grave plot, there were one to six men buried. Eighty percent of the men buried there were under twenty years of age. Thirty percent of them were unknown. In the middle of the cemetery is a massive mound of dirt, towering over the other trees in the area. It holds the body parts of unknown soldiers, pieces of men that weren’t put together again.
Our tour guide said that this is the true horror of warfare. You cannot blame these men for what they did; only their regime, he said. I wonder how much they knew, how much they were told. I wonder how they viewed it—just as we might? They were just fighting for their country, after all.
I don’t scorn those men. I don’t pretend to understand all of what happened at that time. I don’t pretend to understand how the results of WWII affect me today because I was not there and I did not see the change it made directly. I did not lose my brother, father, husband, or friends to this war. I just know that I am grateful that I live in this time and place, privileged with the freedoms and leisure that I am. Today, I am truly proud to be an
I will try to get pictures up at the next hotel, and if not, the next one. Tomorrow, the third of October, is our last night in France. Then, on to Belgium and the Netherlands. Peter, our bus driver, is almost TOO awesome. I’ll have to tell you about him next time.
There ya go.