Not like in Saving Private Ryan, I thought as looked down from the cliffs at Omaha Beach on August 16. The beach that our soldiers had to cross to escape the murderous fire of the Germans on D-Day seemed impossibly far away on this beautiful day.
Some places retain a sense of their past history and this beach was one. Although now it was surrounded by golden fields of ripening grain not German soldiers. The cliffs were now covered in bright green grass and shrubs not bristling with weapons. Yet to many who come here, especially young French families, it is now a place for holiday fun by the ocean, or the land their family has farmed for generations.
Perhaps this is as it should be. Certainly the men who died here decades ago must be happy to see the living working and playing on the land they died to liberate. For the Ramblers and many other tourists who come to visit the Normandy beaches daily, it is a place to celebrate the sacrifice of those who came before. And a place we would never forget.
Our day didn’t start out in a somber mood, in fact, we had enjoyed a pleasant and more typical cruise experience, touring a small town in France on a sunny morning. Deeper emotions would surface later, but we didn’t realize this until after we boarded our bus at Bayeux. Irene, our guide was determined that we would get the most out of our day. She announced that even though we weren’t supposed to visit the other landing beaches because of our stop at Bayeux, we would still get a chance to see them, if only briefly.
Irene had asked our driver to drive along the shore on our way to Omaha beach and stop so we could at least see where the British and Canadian troops had landed. He kindly agreed, and it certainly made his job more difficult.
Did I mention that the coastal roads were narrow and packed with vacationers and their vehicles along with many bicyclists. Yet our bus driver patiently wheeled the large bus through traffic and parked at all the landing spots to give us a brief view.
This helped us understand just how difficult a task the Americans had been given on D-Day. As we soon realized, the other landing spots were flat, with no cliffs bristling with German machine gun posts to pin them down. Their sprint across the sand would not be nearly as long or as deadly.
We stopped at several places along the beach on our way to Omaha Beach, where we were able to walk along the coast to inspect some of the German gun emplacements and bunkers which remained, a rusting memorial to the futility of war.
The gun emplacements just sit there, slowly decaying, available for people to inspect at their leisure. We walked along the sandy, windswept paths, passing bicyclists and families on vacation who no doubt took these grim reminders in stride. Having spent time beach combing along the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coast, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of potentially grim or dangerous mementos washed up after a storm.
Back on board our bus, we heard a brief history of the cemetery. The land itself , like all other American cemeteries in France, and elsewhere in foreign countries, is considered American soil, given to the United states in a perpetual concession. It is managed by the American government which provides funding for its maintenance and staff. Thus the American flag flies above the 172 acres that have been granted to the US. Not all American soldiers who died overseas are buried in these cemeteries. Of course, some were never found or remained unknown. For those who were identified, at the time of permanent burial, the next of kin were asked if they wanted their loved ones’ remains returned home or buried in the closest American cemetery overseas. Six-one percent asked for the remains to be repatriated while thirty-nine percent, for a variety of reasons, agreed to burial in a US military cemetery overseas, close to where they fell. The Rambler was not surprised to learn that over 200 families wanted their soldiers to remain where they had initially been interred, whether in a civilian cemetery or on the battlefield where they had fallen.
When we reached the Omaha Beach site, we quickly disembarked and headed for the cemetery where 9,387 graves, most marked with crosses , but some bear a Star of David instead. The white marble markers are washed three times a week and they shone in the bright sunlight.
The soldiers, all Americans, lie in long rows, not separated by rank or unit, race or religion, but with only the name and date engraved on the white marble marker. All but one died either during the June, 1944 landing or shortly afterwards. The one exception was Quentin Roosevelt, the son of American President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been killed in WWI. When his older brother, Theodore Roosevelt Jr, who had earned the Medal of Honor was killed in 1944, Quentin’s body was exhumed and buried next to his brother. This is, of course, the cemetery seen briefly in Saving Private Ryan.
Although the movie was fiction, it is based on a true story based on the experiences of the Niland family. Two of the Niland brothers are buried in this beautiful place. One was sent home alive, and the other, supposedly killed in the Pacific, ironically, survived the war.
Four women are also buried here, although some sources say three. In doing my research for this blog, I found that information about just who the women were, was scarce. However, it seems that three were African-American WAC’s killed in a jeep accident after the landing and the fourth was a Red Cross volunteer. The WAC’s were part of a postal division from Connecticut, charged with getting the mail to the troops ASAP. Wish I had know about the lack of information while we were at the cemetery, it would have been easy to check.
The WWII Memorial in front of the cemetery is very impressive. Its heart is a semicircular colonnade with a loggia at east end . At the center is a 22 ft. bronze statue titled The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the waves. Upon our arrival we were surprised and touched to learn that Uniworld had contacted the cemetery staff to arrange a memorial service.
It would allow our small group to commemorate the soldiers who lay there. The ceremony included a brief dedication, playing the National Anthem, laying flowers at the base of the statue, and finally the sounding of taps. The cemetery official asked if there was a US veteran present who would lay a floral tribute in front of the statue.
The senior Rambler found, to his surprise, that he was the oldest veteran present, he just missed WWII by a few years, serving in the USAF for 4 years during the Korean War. Another wheelchair bound VietNam War vet also came forward and took part in the ceremony.
To say that it was moving was an understatement. Most all were teary eyed at the end, even those in our group who were from Australia, Canada or Great Britain.
I later learned that the Memorial faces the United States at its nearest point to the cemetery, somewhere between Eastport and Lubec Maine.
We had one more stop, to view the almost side by side memorials tht stand on Omaha Beach directly on the beach not far from the high tide line. The first was the massive Liberation Memorial, built of concrete block with stainless steel letters. it commemorates the American Infantry who lost their lives near here. The second was titled Les Braves,
and is completely different from the first. It was commissioned by the French government in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the landing. It was supposed to be temporary but twelve years later, it is still there. You can see why. It captures the spirit of the place.
It was an afternoon the Ramblers will long remember, and the most memorable day of our cruise