Saturday, I took a day trip to Normandy. Although I’ve lived in France as an American expat for more than three years and I’ve commemorated D-Day twice on French soil, I’d never before visited the D-Day beaches. When my in-laws invited us to go to Colleville-sur-Mer to visit Omaha Beach and the American cemetery there, I heartily accepted. I’d seen photos and read accounts of the débarquement — I’d even written an article about it for this blog — but I didn’t know how moving the experience would end up being.
When we arrived at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, we bypassed the museum to go directly to the beach. There, I found myself on a wide expanse of fine sand, grooved by streams of seawater flowing back into the Channel with the ebbing tide. It was a magnificently beautiful patch of earth, shimmering in the morning light. Sparsely occupied by just a few visitors, it was so very peaceful. Even with Robert Capa‘s immortal images in my mind, it was difficult to imagine the scene that had unfolded on that sand 69 years earlier. I took some time to quietly reflect, while searching for a souvenir pebble from that hallowed ground. Afterwards, we climbed back to the top of the bluffs, where we came face to face with the scale of the loss of life. A verdant 173-acre field speckled with stark white crosses and stars gave witness to 9,387 of the more than 25,000 American lives lost in Normandy that day and in the weeks and months that followed. At one end of the cemetery stood the memorial, with a 22-foot statue — “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” — and a semi-circular wall engraved with the names of 1,557 missing in action.
If the beach gave a sense of place and the cemetery a sense of scale, it was the museum that at last gave a sense of the humanity. We were confronted not only by the faces of soldiers who died on that ground, but by their very words. Videos and artifacts helped tell their collective and individual experiences. Then there was the short hallway in which the names of those who had died were read in an endless cycle, leading to an exit hall with portraits and personal stories. As I left the museum, I signed the visitors’ book with an homage to my great uncle, Marion Stuckey. While he wasn’t at Omaha Beach, he served valiantly and died in service to his country for the liberation of France. As I left the hall, I was overwhelmed with a mix of pride, solemnity, and pain. That’s probably as it should be.
Some of the videos one can see at the museum:
“On Their Shoulders”
“OK Let’s Go”
After our visit to Omaha Beach, we spent the rest of the afternoon advancing along the Norman coast, stopping for a picnic lunch atop of the cliffs at Longues-sur-Mer, passing by the British and Canadian beachheads at Gold Beach, Juno Beach, and Sword Beach, before making our way to the medieval port of Honfleur. It was a day that will surely remain with me forever.
“To these we owe the high resolve
that the cause for which they died shall live.”
© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved