Paris Day 62: Normandy

The beaches of Normandy.

Omaha. Utah. Juno. Gold. Sword.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what D-Day was. Maybe I was that kid – the one obsessed with history – but I remember pouring over pictures of World War II and searching the faces of the soldiers who sat in the boats waiting to disembark. I’d stare at them and wonder what they felt and if they survived. I marveled at their bravery and cried sometimes when I thought about their fear.

One of the main things I’ve wanted to do since arriving in Paris is visit Normandy, so yesterday, Bug and I drove the boys to the coast. Our first stop was Le Mémorial de Caen. Here we found a detailed exhibit of life in Europe, America, and Japan from World War I up to post-World War II. Pudge, having studied World War I and the period leading up to the Second World War, impressed Bug with his knowledge and helped me guide his younger brothers through the start of the exhibit. The museum has a “children’s room” where parents can leave their kids, but we decided against it, wanting our kids to learn about the horrible impact of war. While our boys did fine in general, the part discussing the  Holocaust was difficult for The Fox. He kept asking if he’d be safe, why didn’t anyone try to save the kids, and why didn’t anyone stop the Germans from hurting all those people. Tough questions and I’m not sure I gave the best answers.

The German Cemetery at La Cambe was nearby, so we headed there. The boys immediately scrambled to the top of the monument (there are stairs in the back) while I wondered around.

The entryway to the German Cemetery.

I know the Germans were the aggressors, but as I read the grave markers, I noticed that most of fallen soldiers were seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years old, and my heart broke. They were boys, probably off on a grand adventure, not fully understanding what they were signing up for, or even the politics behind it.

Reading the gravestones of unnamed German soldiers.

Our next stop was La Pointe du Hoc. If you have a chance to visit Normandy and want to see – really see – the effects of the bombardment, visit this place. Artillery craters, while now covered in grass, dominate the landscape.

A crater created by the artillery bombardment.

Broken chunks from concrete bunkers litter the bluff and rebard pokes up randomly from the walking paths. The command center still perches over sheer cliffs that American Rangers scaled under heavy gunfire with rope ladders. To everyone’s surprise, the Rangers took the cliff faster than anticipated, secured the site, and were able make sure the guns (which turned out to be nothing more than logs) wouldn’t be fired on nearby Utah and Omaha beaches. It was a huge strategic win for the Allies on that long day.

The ruins of the German Bunker system at La Point du Hoc.

Looking into the lookout of the command center where the gunners aimed toward the ocean.

And looking out.

After leaving La Point du Hoc, we drove to Omaha Beach. It wasn’t anything like I expected. People frolicked on the beach, fancy ocean front homes lined the area, and tourist shops dotted the street along the main drag. I know that time marches on and it’s been nearly seventy years, but to me, it felt a lot like building a house on a graveyard.

Instead of tanks, there are now tractors and boats on Omaha Beach. Notice the chunk of concrete in the foreground.

We next drove to the Musée Mémorial d’Omaha Beach. Here, the boys spent a great deal of time studying the exhibits of American GI gear, guns, and ammo, as well as a breakdown of the D-Day’s events on Omaha. Bug and I read the first hand accounts from survivors and studied an impressive collection of pictures from the invasion and the liberation.

It was a long day, but one I know none of us will ever forget.

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3 thoughts on “Paris Day 62: Normandy

  1. This is a great letter. I am so glad you took them to the Memorial and the Cemetery. Those plus Omaha beach are so powerful. Like you I scan the photos for a clue to what they might be thinking and my hearbreaks for the lost youth, the lost generation. I think the inscription at the German Cemetery saysit all “It is a graveyard for soldiers, not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” Did you get to St Mere Eglise?

  2. You’ve written a lovely account.

    I’m not sure if you know that their great great uncle Robert Schaefer was a WWII fighter pilot and was shot down and died in Germany. He was on his last mission before he was to be sent stateside. He was based in the the U.K. He too died young.

    Jan

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