Walking the Normandy Beaches

France, Normandy. Utah Beach

A desire to visit the D-Day landing sights at Normandy has rested deep within me for many years.  As a tour guide in Washington, DC I am privileged to work with military groups, including Honor Flights of inspirational World War II veterans.  From childhood I recollect whispers from my mom, a WW II Army nurse, who shared stories about caring for D-Day casualties.  My readings of World War II history, coupled with the compelling visuals in movies like the Longest Day, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan in no small way have nurtured the urge to walk the hallowed ground of Operation Overlord in the Atlantic Theater of Operation of WW II. Finally, in the Fall of 2015, it happened.

My visit to Normandy began at the Caen Memorial, a War Memorial and the Centre for History and Peace.    A chilling reality is that this memorial is located on the site of German General Richter’s headquarters.  Richter was in charge of the German occupying forces in Normandy, and you can walk through the basement rooms of this facility and hear stories about French laborers who subtly sabotaged efforts of their German occupiers while building this site.

I spent one day walking Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches with British companions in the company of a guide who described operations of the Commonwealth forces landing here.  We walked across Pegasus Bridge, hearing the story of the renowned British Horsa glider pilot, Major John Howard.  Howard and his men landed here in the early morning of June 6, 1944.  They captured Pegasus Bridge, a critical mission which prevented German troops from getting to the Normandy beaches.   When I saw a Horsa glider at one of the museums I came to appreciate more fully the courage of those glider pilots.

The final day at Normandy was devoted to Utah and Omaha beaches.  As a Virginian, I know about the Bedford Boys of Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment.  These were among the first wave to land at Omaha Beach, sustaining the greatest loss of soldiers per capita than any other place in America.  Current estimates say that 34,250 Americans landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and 3,686 were killed on that longest day.  When you see the furor of the waves of the English Channel that crash upon Normandy, the hedgehog obstacles, the explosive ordinance, and the strategic German bunkers set into the high ground above, you more fully appreciate how the landings at Omaha produced such massive casualties.

My day ended at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where more than 9,000 Americans are buried.  The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach and it contains an army of headstones bearing crosses and stars of David, standing at attention.  This powerful, silent witness exists in perfectly manicured, artfully landscaped, hallowed ground.

I purchased a print of In the Company of Heroes: a Silent Reunion by Matt Hall. http://www.matthallstudios.com/print/in-the-company-of-heroes/    The image shows older veterans visiting a military gravesite with the ghosts of young fallen comrades in the background.  When you visit Normandy you feel the presence of the company of heroes.   These Americans gave their lives in the name of freedom on a foreign shore for a noble cause.   We cannot forget the fallen of Normandy, and so many others in places round the world.  Freedom is not Free!

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