Thursday, August 21, 2014

Plages du Debarquement de Normandie

Normandy American Cemetery
Humbling. Simply humbling. That is the only way I can describe a visit to the landing beaches on the coast of Normandy, France.  I've watched Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan numerous times yet neither film fully prepared me for the experience of walking over these battlefields. June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, was a day that went down in history and during the long summer of 1944 this stretch of coastline was the scene of some of the most strategically planned yet bloody fighting our country has ever known. Today, seventy years after the fact, these same beaches, villages and fields are both eerily quiet yet filled  by tourists taking the same trek we did. Bunkers and craters mark the battlefields where bombs were once dropped, monuments paying tribute to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice sit adjacent to corn fields and grazing cattle  and tastefully organized museums recount all aspects of the battles. American, British and Canadian flags fly alongside French ones in every village and signs and banners thanking the rest of the world for their freedom are as common as stop signs. The entire area pays tribute to their past and reminds us all of the horrors that can ensure should we forget where we have come from.

One could spend weeks if not months visiting and exploring the battlefields, monuments and museums of Normandy. In fact, there are so many historically significant sites in the area that our GPS looked like a field of black dots connected by a few roads. Because this was our first visit and since it was impossible to take it all in over the course of a long weekend, we chose to spend time at a few of the more famous ones along the Normandy coast. I know we missed so many worthy sites (we must go back) but those that we did see moved me in a way that few other places ever have. Nice, enjoyable and fun are not the appropriate words to describe our weekend; moving, humbling and thoughtful are.

Perhaps the best known (to Americans at least) sites are Omaha and Utah Beaches. Today they are flat sandy expanses that mask the horrors that took place seventy years ago. Here the tides ebb and flow quickly, exposing and covering the sands and reminders of the past. We saw a few brave souls swimming in the surf and many more curious waders dipping their toes into the sacred waters. (True to form, we limited ourselves to throwing a few rocks into the water from a craggy perch). There are many places you could start your visit but the Cinema Circulaire in Arromanches provides a moving and comprehensive overview of the landings and battles that took place on the shores below. Set on a hill overlooking the village of Arromanches-les-Baines, and using archival footage displayed on nine high definition screens, the cinema introduces visitors to the story of the landings by Americans at Omaha and Utah Beaches, as well as the Canadian and British landings at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches and the entire 100 day Battle of Normandy. Both the Musee Memorial Omaha Beach and the Utah Beach Museum house relics, photographs and memorabilia that bring this period alive. Films take you back to 1944 and watching them makes you feel as though you are on the battlefields. Most of all, these museums take the war from a page in history that most of us only learned about in school and personalize it through powerful narratives that bring the battles to life.

But not all of the battle is shown from an Allied perspective. The Batterie allemande de Longues sur Mer has you walking along the remnants of the Atlantic Wall, Germany's defense barrier that protected their troops from attacking armies. Perched atop the cliffs overlooking Omaha and Gold Beaches the bunkers of Longues sur Mer provided German's with a bird's eye view of what was happening on the beachfronts below. Today concrete bunkers in various states of decline, some with their artillery still intact, dot the hills. Visitors are free to climb into and on top of the bunkers and see the same view that the Germans did seventy years ago. We visited on a crystal clear day and the serene views only made the reality of what had occurred here all the more numbing.

A German artillery bunker
And the German perspective of the beach landings

Normandy American Cemetery sitting above Omaha Beach
And last but not least, was our visit to the Normandy American Cemetery. I've visited several military cemeteries in the past, including the hallowed Arlington, but Normandy is in a class by itself. The visitors center provides visitors with a personal introduction to several of the soldiers buried on the cemetery grounds. It is these personal stories, who they were, how they lived, the families the left behind, and how they died that makes the tragedy that much more real. Then there was the cemetery. Set above the very beach where so many of those buried here lost their lives, these 172.5 acres are the final resting places for 9,387 American heros. Included in this number are 45 sets of brothers and four civilians. Marble Latin crosses and Stars of David are laid out in symmetric rows, without regard to date of death, home state or rank, for as far as the eye can see. And despite the throngs of visitors and the Congressional delegation on a fact finding mission (members of the Appropriations Committee) the cemetery had a tranquil feel. A silence hung over the area and we could wander amongst the headstones undisturbed by others. In fact, for much of our walk the only sounds were those of birds chirping and the sea crashing below us. It felt like a fitting final resting place for those whose final moments had been filled with such terror and trauma.


...... and now
Tribute at Omaha Beach
The Navy Memorial at Utah Beach
Like I said, our entire visit was a humbling experience. Today it is so easy for people to complain about what they don't have in life or how difficult they perceive things to be for them. But I challenge them to take a moment to reflect on what they do have and question if their circumstances are really that bad. For just a moment, they should put themselves in the place of the French families who lived under the Nazi occupation. Or perhaps put themselves in the shoes of the young soldiers who stormed one of the beaches or dropped from the air on D-Day. Then think about their own lives. I know I did and I walked away feeling grateful for those who fought these battles. Its humbling; simply humbling.

If you go:

Arromanches Cinema Circulaire 
Arromanches, France
(33) 02 31 06 06 45
Open daily
5 Euro for adults, 4 Euro for children and seniors

Musee Memorial Omaha Beach 
14710 Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer
Normandy, France
(33) 02 31 21 97 44
Open daily
9 Euro for adults, reduced admission for children, seniors and active duty military members

Musee du Debarquement Utah Beach
50480 Sainte du Mont, France
(33) 02 33 71 53 35
Open daily
8 Euro adults, reduced admission for children and seniors

Batterie allemande de Longues sur Mer
Port en Bessin, Bayeax, France
(33) 02 31 21 46 87
Open daily
Free admission; charge for guided tours

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
14710 Colleville-sur-Mer, France
(33) 02 31 51 62 00
Open daily
Free admission

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