Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day and Normandy

Re-enactment of D-Day 2009

This is Memorial Day week-end in the U.S.
     That means that swimming pools will be opening for the summer. It means you can wear white again, until Labor Day - although that's now a somewhat out-dated fashion rule. It means that recipes for potato salad and marinades for the BBQ abound in newspapers and magazines.
     But one of my readers - and she will know who she is - reminded me of another thing that Memorial Day means. And that’s who we’re memorializing.

American Embassy - Paris
      I have lived in France through times when it was hard to be an American without taking flak. The Vietnam days spring immediately to mind. And some of the Bush II years also. Other periods were far easier, for instance during Bill Clinton’s presidential terms, or when Michael Jackson brought out his Thriller album.
     Some visitors have complained about the non-welcome that Americans get in France, especially in Paris. (Of course, French people from the provinces also can get a rude welcome in Paris, but that’s another blog altogether.) Not having an American accent in French, I’ve sometimes been privy to anti-American comments at dinner parties. That always makes my friends a bit nervous, so they explain to the offending party, "Sandy’s American, you know." An "oops" - in French translation - usually follows, with an apology.
     But this being Memorial Day week-end - and wanting to promote Franco-American friendship - I thought I’d tell you a story that happened to me while touring with some people through Normandy one year. At least you won’t be able to see when my eyes tear up, which they always do when I tell this story.

Mark had been in the Army during World War II, and was sent to Normandy a few days after D-Day to help with the provisioning of the invasion forces. The famous caisson port had been built at Arromanches so that ships could dock out where there was enough depth and jeeps and trucks could just be driven off and down along the caissons to shore. (Google it. It was an amazing feat.)

Omaha Beach
 By the time of our tour, Mark was in his sixties and had returned to Normandy with four of his relatives. Usually a rather chatty guy, I watched him on Omaha Beach as we ate our picnic lunch. He stood off to the side - silent - watching a kid throw a stick into the water for his dog to fetch, and a couple walk hand in hand on the sand, and an old gentleman take his constitutional with the help of a cane. I went over to him. "Mark, are you all right?" I asked, struck by his uncharacteristic silence. Without turning, he murmured, "I never thought it could be like this again."

     After lunch, some of my flock wanted a coffee. I drove them along the crest of the bluff and we found a bar/café at a crossroads out in the middle of nowhere, among the fields. Inside, standing at the bar, were farmers in muddy rubber boots and faded blue work overalls, talking and having a beverage of their choice. We sat down at one of the tables, which were all empty. I took the order and went to give it in. The sixty-something year old gentleman behind the bar - probably the owner - took our order and brought it to our table.
     After a while, we were ready to get on with the day’s tour. We stopped at the bar to pay our bill. "How much do we owe you?" I asked the gentleman. "American?" he asked, looking us over in turn. "Yes," I answered, not knowing where this was going. "It’s already paid for," he continued. I looked around at the men standing at the bar, wondering why one of them had paid for us. "I was eight years old on D-Day," he went on. "It’s already been paid for."

There is a cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, on land which has been donated to America in perpetuity. In it are buried 9,387 Americans who gave their lives to free Europe and the world of Nazi totalitarianism. My tourists always want to go there. I take them near closing time, when it’s more calm and most of the tourists have left. It’s most beautiful at that time, and you can hear your thoughts better. And the memories.

All photos not marked otherwise are of the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy.


  1. I wept throughout reading your post. How very moving, both prose and photos. I had no idea that so many Americans were buried in foreign soil. My sister was born on VJ Day (1945) and I was born a year earlier. My father was in the Army Air Corps, stationed at a base in the US; he did everything but stow away to get to where the fighting was. But (fortunately for us) he was a superb marksman and was needed state-side to train other soldiers to shoot well. To his death, what he was most proud of was having served his country. I have but 3 mementos of him: two circular medallions from his uniform (one says US and on the other is a propeller affixed to a pair of wings); the 3rd is one of the spent shells from the military salute at his funeral.

  2. You are a wonderful writer, Sandy. Thank you.