A Humbling Remembrance
Updated: Apr 27
The north of France has seen the greatest bloodshed known to man, it was the battlefield of two wars ravaging the land and the people, not just those who lived there but those that came to fight. Today it is dotted by memorials, museums and most sorrowfully by gravestones, rows and rows. My latest trip here was more meaningful and humbling as I was able to share it with my brothers. I am of the belief that every American needs to see this; to embrace the history, honor the human spirit and infinitely feel more respectful of the sacrifice of our fathers’ generation did for our freedoms.
Visiting Normandy and its normally bucolic landscapes is always a gastronomic treat, think cheese but heading towards the English Channel it is forefront in your mind, the famous beaches. The Normandy Landings in June 1944 signified a major turning point in World War II and in those dark days gave hope to millions that Europe would eventually be liberated. D-Day – or 'Operation Overlord' – was an extremely large and complex undertaking. The successful coordination of American, British, Canadian and Free French Airborne troops, as well as the landing of infantry and armored divisions, remains one of the greatest victories in history and the largest invasion of troops by sea.
One of the best books written to bring this to life is by Brit Giles Milton, Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die. It narrates multiple human stories in the 24 hours of D-Day from many perspectives. It brings to life the true chaotic unfolding, the emotions, and the sheer determination, spilling of blood and guts and the small triumphs’. But for an emotive and poignant duty call is at the visit center (opened in 2007) with stories of individual men and women that made it happen. The focus on personal experiences underscores the importance of each individual headstone within the cemetery.
The American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer, is located on the top of the cliff overlooking the famous Omaha Beach. A beautiful stretch of sandy beach Omaha on a calm sunny day impress by its beauty, but it exudes emotion. Bloody Omaha is also known for being the most devastating but glorious for its turning point of the Normandy invasion. You will also get to see the Pointe du Hoc, an ominous piece of land jutting into the English Channel. It provided an elevated vantage point from which large German guns with a range of 15 miles could deliver fire upon both Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. The neutralization of these guns by the allied forces was the key to victory. The Allied forces suffered nearly 10,000 casualties, more than 4,000 were Americans.
The Colleville-sur-Mer village is the site of 172 acres of the American Cemetery which was dedicated in 1956. But the US Army established as early as June 8, 1944, a stone marker on the spot just above the beach where the first Americans were laid to rest. Now above on US territory rests more than 9,380 American soldiers who died during the battles. One cannot help but be impressed with perfectly aligned rows of white crosses and how the beautiful garden is laid out. A circular chapel in the garden has a Wall of the Missing at its base. All of the American cemeteries (26) around the world are kept in pristine order and condition. Here the landscape architect was Markley Stevenson from my hometown of Philadelphia, he laid out the planting of Austrian Black Pines, Holly Oaks and Turkey Oaks. The Austrian Pine serves as a wind break and is salt tolerant, Holly Oaks are an evergreen oak and Turkey Oaks have a long-life span about 200 years. There doesn’t seem to be a leaf out of place. Though this cemetery has a million visitors a year the majority of them are French citizens. As a matter of fact, every year ordinary local people and families collect sand from Omaha Beach — where Americans lost 2,400 lives on D-Day. Then, they use it to fill in the letters on their tombstones of the fallen. The names are then very legible and the seem to sparkle with the sand particles.
Today all five landing beaches have museums to recount the harrowing details of that infamous day. As you can imagine the names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword were code names, this was a French coastline with names like Courseulles-sur-Mer and Arromanches. Interestingly the names seem to have come from a military commander who asked two non-combants where they were from…Utah and Omaha, figuring that would take a Germans time to put that together, these names live in infamy. Utah Beach, the westernmost beach in the combat zone, where 23,200 American soldiers landed on D-Day. For British and Canadians, the names correspond to the abbreviations for certain types fish: goldfish, swordfish and jellyfish. Jelly was changed as it was thought silly, to Juno in honor of the wife of one of the officers. That is called history.
Educating the next generations is critical to illuminate the service, experience and sacrifice of those honored at our cemeteries. For those of us that have the honor to go to and stand at a grave site, say the name of that fallen hero will keep them alive in our collected memories. Some mother thanks you.