Thursday, June 5, 2014

D-Day - Seventieth anniversary

Mulberry harbor remnants, Arromanches
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 harbor had been towed across the Channel to 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.
Omaha Beach, June 2009
     I took Mark and his family on a tour of France, which logically included the Normandy beaches.  He was in his sixties by then.  Usually a rather chatty guy, I watched him on Omaha Beach, standing off a bit as the rest of us ate our picnic lunch.  He stood silent, watching a boy throw a stick into the water for his dog to fetch...  A couple walk hand in hand along the sand...  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 breezily along the crest of the bluff that so many soldiers died trying to reach.  We found a bar/café at a crossroads out in the middle of nowhere, among the fields.
Utah Beach
     Inside, standing at the bar, were farmers in muddy rubber boots and faded blue work overalls, talking and having a beverage of their choice.  The six of us sat down at one of the tables, which were all empty.  I took everyone’s order and went up to the bar.  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.  “Combien on vous doit?” I asked the gentleman. How much do we owe you?  I speak without an accent, I’m told, but my wards had been merrily chatting away in English.
     “Américains?” he asked, looking them over in turn.  “Yes,” I answered, not knowing where this was going. “C’est déjà payé.” he replied.  It’s already paid for.
     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.”

Pointe du Hoc
June 6th, 1944.  That horror-yet-hope-filled day when the Allies swarmed the quiet beaches of this peaceful region filled with apple trees and dairy cows.  Divvied up between them, the British troops got Sword Beach, to the far east nearest the Orne River and what would become the Pegasus Bridge across to Berlin - and Gold Beach farther west. Between them, the Canadians took Juno.  The Americans got flat, wide, sandy Utah Beach on the far western end... and they also got the short end of the stick at the bluffs of narrow Omaha Beach, where 2,500 died.
     Between those two “American” beaches is a headland:  the Pointe du Hoc.  With its view of the coast both east and west, it’s a place that puts things into perspective.  Quickly.  There are some platforms overlooking the English Channel on one side and the remaining Nazi blockhouses on the other.  The plateau stretching all around is still pockmarked with deep craters, now green with wild grass, craters made all those decades ago by incoming bombs.
Bomb craters
     A few years after Mark and his family, I was there on another tour of the Normandy Beaches.  We ran into a busload of tourists with a guide and she was explaining to her group what they were seeing:  the cliff, the blockhouses, the rusting cannons, the craters...  Everyone was rapt, except for a handful of elderly gentlemen.  They were standing together, looking out over the water, their eyes lost in something the rest of us couldn’t see, hearing things we couldn’t hear.
     When the guide was through and most of the tourists were heading off to the bus and their next stop, those old men hung back.  I went over to one of them, the one closest to me.
     “Were you here on that day?” I asked.
     “Yes,” he said, simply.
     I held out my hand.  “Thank you.”
     He seemed perplexed and looked briefly at his friends, all other veterans.  Then he took my hand, shook it, looked down at his shoes and moved off.

American Cemetery, Coleville-sur-Mer

Overlooking Omaha Beach, at the top of the vertical bluff, is the American Cemetery, on land which has been donated to the United States 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. Your thoughts, and the memories.
German girl discovering a blockhaus
at Pointe du Hoc
     A few short months after taking office, President Obama came here on the 65th anniversary of the Allied landings.  He gave a speech early in the morning, around the time the first assault started. I was there the day before the ceremony.  The red carpet was already out, the folding chairs set up.
     Now he's back for the 70th anniversary.  Even fewer veterans will be present.  The ones who haven’t died are probably too old for such a long trip.
     And yet it’s a long trip that is still easier than the one they made on June 6th seventy years ago.

Not all D-Day victims came from far away.
Some were locals.
Churchyard near Sainte-Mère-l'Eglise

If you’re a history buff, you might like to listen to that 65th anniversary ceremony, which includes President Obama’s 2009 speech (starts at the 38 min. mark).  It also has wonderful video coverage of the site itself.  Here it is from c-span:


  1. Thank you for this, Sandy. My father in law, Robert Elliott, was an engineer in WWII. He built the pontoon bridges that eventually went across the Rhine. That company was always in front of the front lines; he lost many companions. He was at the liberation of one of the concentration camps. He had some serious ptsd, which made parenting my husband difficult; he was an older than average father, as you might have guessed. About 20 years ago, he and my mother in law drove across Europe, revisiting many of the places he'd been during the war. He was finally able to talk about some of his experiences. My parents are going to Normandy this summer.

  2. Thank you, Sandy. I haven't been to Normandy with you, but I've been with you at some famous Resistance sites in southern France. You have a great way of evoking history.