We’ve seen the documentaries. We’ve seen the movies. We’ve read the books.
Until you see Omaha Beach at the state of tide matching the invasion, until you have seen the fortified cliffs and overgrown ancient dune line walling off an advance and providing cover for enemy snipers, until you have seen the hedgerows that provided the enemy infantry cover, until you’ve seen the roads designed for ox carts — the documentaries, the movies, the books are just attempts at understanding.
How do one million (by July 4, 1944) commit themselves to throwing their lives against such barricades, again and again and again? Are there even people like that today, in those numbers?
I knew a few. My university President, Earl Rudder lead the Rangers up the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. My thesis adviser humped a BAR almost as long as he was tall up that beach. My dad and Janet’s dad served elsewhere, but they served for the duration. There were others we’ve met, but not many would talk.
Now that we’ve seen Omaha Beach, we think we may understand why. Now that we have been to the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, we think we may understand why. Now that we’ve heard French teachers in their twenties tell their pre-teen students, “And that is why we will always love the Americans,” we think we may understand.
It was a two hour coach ride to the Invasion Beaches. I tried to read, but too many signs held names of places I remembered from the attempts at understanding. When we arrived in Arromanches, we found ourselves in the midst of many other coach arrivals, a commemorative triathalon, a parking snafu and paucity of instructions on where to go and how to get there. Nico, the Program Director stepped in and eventually got things sorted. Good Man.
The Mulberry-B Museum was jammed, and we missed our planned film time and spent most of our time queued up for the next showing. Fortunately, the museum was small enough we could take it in from where we queued. Mulberry was the artificial harbor towed from England to France to provide logistics support for the invasion since it had been determined no French port nearby could be made usable in time, even assuming an immediate liberation of the port.
From there we went to lunch, which the restaurant handled pretty well since there were instantly 160 of us at the door. It wasn’t the best meal we’d had in France, but I would have had it again (even though we are not sure what one item was). From the restaurant, we reboarded our coaches and spent the rest of the afternoon visiting key locations along the beach and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
There we watched as two survivors of D-Day placed roses at the markers of people who had fallen beside them on the day of the invasion. We were OK until the bagpipes started.
We, too, placed roses and chose to do so at the markers of those “known only to God.” After that there was a small remembrance ceremony, and then suddenly I realized an in-trail formation of aircraft was approaching — five C-130s, a CASA and an Osprey from my old outfit flew over a low altitude and full speed — twice. It was entirely coincidence, but it brought back many thoughts from the days when I was a burial detail commander for a year. We had time to visit the Memorial Center, and we’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
It was another two hours back to the ship. The bus was very quiet. For some, it was age. For some, it was the meal. For some, it was the understanding.