The journey from Arromanches to our next destination was a bout 20 minutes or so. I had heard of the landing beaches of Omaha and Utah, but must admit I wasn’t fully aware of the importance that Pointe du Huc, just west of Omaha beach, and the Army Rangers played in Operation Overloard… ie the Battle of Normandy.
Pointe du Hoc is a prominent cliff location that offers a commanding view of both Omaha and Utah beaches below. The German forces positioned several guns on the point to defend the position. They built heavily fortified concrete casements interlaced with tunnels, trenches, and machine-gun positions around the perimeter that was manned by approx 200 troops.
On D-Day three companies of Rangers arrived by sea at a small beach at foot of the cliffs. They scaled the 100 foot wall using ropes, ladders, and grapples – did I mention they were doing this while under enemy fire? They managed to take the Pointe with the help of US destroyer ships lobbing in some fire when they could, however the Germans did manage 2 days of counter attacks. The Rangers were not fully prepared for a two day battle and were close to running out of food and ammo, but reinforcements from Omaha beach arrived in time to lend a hand.
Today a monument stands to honor the Rangers for their courage and remember the 70% of the attack forces who lost their lives during the battle. Many of the fortifications and bunkers have been left just as they were at the end of the battle. A dirt and gravel path winds its way around the cement structures and leads to the monument at the edge of the cliff. Along the way you get an idea of the power of the ships guns from the craters that dot the landscape.
Back on the motorcoach and few minutes drive from Pointe Du Hoc and you reach Omaha Beach via a narrow winding road that snakes its way to the coastline.
Along the way they point out the site of the first American WW2 cemetery on European soil and it was established on June 8, 1944. The first to lay down their lives were buried here, then at the end of the war , moved to the current American cemetery location just east of this spot.
When you arrive at Omaha Beach, you might be a bit taken back. You might expect to see a long stretch of beach with rocks and fields trapped in a time warp to preserve the memory of what happened here. When in fact you have a long stretch of beach that is surrounded by the village of St. Laurent-sur-Mer. It is a sleepy little village, until the tour buses arrive or unless you are there in August when France takes a month off for holiday and people are headed to the beach.
Many of us had the same initial feelings when we saw the beach for the first time. “This is sacred ground.. why are people swimming here?” ….”why is there a restaurant within just yards from the sand that in some places was stained red?” etc….
But take a moment and look around… and think it through.
You see people… families, couples, batches of friends. Happy people enjoying freedom. That’s the same freedom and happiness so many died on that beach to ensure. Then a smile comes to your face and it all makes sense.
The ‘Les Braves’ monument stands on the center of Omaha Beach.
And I want to share the comments of the sculptuer I found online:
I created this scuplture to honor the courage of these men:
Sons, husbands and fathers, who endangered and often sacrificed their lives
in the hope of freeing the French people.
Les Braves consists of three elements:
– The wings of Hope –
So the spirit which carried these men on June 6th, 1944 continues to inspire us,
reminding us that together it is always possible to changing the future.
– Rise, Freedom! –
So that the example of those who rose against barbarity,
helps us remain standing strong against all forms of inhumanity.
– The Wings of Fraternity –
So that this surge of brotherhood always reminds us of our responsibility towards others
as well as ourselves.
On June 6th, 1944 these man were more than soldiers, they were our brothers.
We spent about 30 minutes or so to soak it all in. You look at the beach and you cant help but to superimpose pictures of what you have seen in history books, or the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” to the place of beauty and happiness you see today.
We board the bus again and drive 20 minutes or so and arrive at one of the most moving places I have ever seen….
The Normandy American Cemetery.
The 172.5 acre cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. The remains of over 9,000 American military members are buried here. Most were killed during the invasion of Normandy and other valiant operations that helped secure the allied victory in WW2.
The Wall of the Missing is a semi-circle memorial adorned with the names of 1557 names whose remains were never identified.
Buried here are three recipients of the Medal of Honor, including Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of President Theodore Roosevelt. Another son, Quentin, who was killed in World War I, was exhumed and reburied next to his brother Theodore, Jr.
When we arrived we were treated to a special ceremony where words of remembrance were spoken and the playing of the National Anthem and Taps.
But when the ceremony was over…
Our Avalon Guides handed us roses. They said it was for us to pay a special remembrance at the grave of a loved one or a complete stranger.
As I held the roses in my hand,… looking out over the sea of grave markers…. it hit me.
The wave of emotion… A big ball of of sadness mixed with immense respect and great pride.
If I could lay a rose on every grave, I would have done it without thinking twice. But without the time, or a loved one buried there, how do you choose?
I looked at each stone as I walked past. Reading the name, rank and state.
I was on my 10th row or so and I found the perfect marker.
It Reads: Here rests in honored Glory, A Comrade in Arms, known but to God.
This was the most fitting location for the first rose. Remembering all those who may not have a name on a stone, but who made the same sacrifice for others.
For the second rose, we found the marker of a soldier from our home state of Washington thinking that would be an appropriate sign of gratitude as well.
Such a beautiful place with such deep meaning. Its hard to reconcile the beauty and peacefulness with the suffering & sacrifice.
My father was in the Navy in the Pacific Theater during WW2 and while he didn’t storm the beaches of Normandy, he certainly could have been deployed there. So with that in mind, I thank each and every one of those men and 3 women buried there along with their families who gave up so much for our freedom and the military members and families who give so much of themselves today.
So… with gratitude and respect, we board the bus once again and start the 90 minute journey back to Caudebec.
A special thanks to Avalon Waterways for taking the time to think about the little things and provide the roses. A small gesture that really helped to make the experience personally meaningful. Above and beyond expectations for a full day excursion that is free of charge for your guests.