“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you” – General Eisenhower prior to the Normandy invasion.
These were the words we read in the car on the relatively short 2 1/2 hour drive from Paris to the Omaha Beach Memorial site in Normandy. At the time, I was working with a skin care and cosmetics company on innovation, and spending a lot of time in France working with glass suppliers. The sands along the coastline of France have produced some of the worlds finest glass since the 1600’s and we were heading to the coastline to visit a manufacturing site. As a team, we planned the trip to arrive over the weekend as all three of us had a strong desire to visit the memorial. Although the photos attached are from another photographer who has kindly uploaded them to share to all, my memories of that day have never faded. Each Memorial day they seem to grow more vivid.
25 American cemeteries across 10 countries
The Military Cemetery at Normandy is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, created in 1923 by an act of Congress, with responsibilities not just for Normandy, but for 25 American Cemeteries located in 10 countries across the world. Their 2017 annual budget was $75MM to maintain impeccable care over these memorials. Its important to remember that over 130,000 American Servicemen have been laid to rest overseas. Of these 25 cemeteries – 11 of them are located in France – the single biggest number of any country . 60,511 American servicemen in total, rest across these 11 cemeteries and most of them within a half day’s drive from Paris. American servicemen are no longer buried overseas. At the start of the Korean war, a new policy was enacted, to make every effort to bring every fallen soldier back to US soil. These 25 memorial cemeteries will forever remain 25.
From Paris to Normandy – The trip worth taking
If you find yourself in Paris you might consider adding an extra day onto your trip to make the drive (or 2 hour train ride to Caen) to stand in awe of the bravery and courage of so many on that day. It will most likely become your most rewarding memory of your trip. We focused on Omaha beach but the battle was a wide coastal stretch and there are commemorative sights along the entire coast.
The allies had divided the 60 mile coastal stretch into five sectors codenamed Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. The British forces were predominant in the east with Sword & Gold, while Canadians led at Juno. The American forces landed to the west in Omaha and Utah. There were varying levels of resistance at all five beaches, but it was the beach at Omaha that met the fiercest resistance and suffered the worst casualties. The infantry was decimated by German fire across the open beach. You can walk along the shores of Omaha beach (all the beaches) and look up to the bluff to the very piece of land so many fought and died trying to secure. Standing on the beach and looking up, you cannot help but to stare in absolute awe and wonder at what type of courage and conviction it took to jump out of a boat, run up onto a heavily fortified beach, all the while taking massive gunfire from the bluffs. It’s beyond comprehension.
Rangers lead the way
The picture above is from Pointe du Hoc which has remained largely untouched from 1944 where you can walk along the cliff to the concrete casements and gun pits. During the invasion, this was considered a critical defense point for the Germans and critical to the success of the landing to dismantle. It is the highest point between Omaha and Utah beach. The only way to take the Pointe was to land on the beach and then with ropes and ladders scale the 100 foot cliffs while under heavy enemy fire to reach the concrete casement. This had never been done before and no one was trained for scaling cliffs. A big part of the preparation for D-Day by the 2nd and 5th ranger battalion was learning how to climb! By the end of the 2nd day – they had succeeded in their mission but at a heavy price. They suffered the highest casualty rate of the landing – 70% of the men who landed.
The serenity of hallowed ground
Between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and the end of the Operation Overlord campaign (end of August) there would be over 425,000 casualties across the Allies and German armies. Additionally, over 2,000,000 men would have been transported across the channel and it would prove to be the turning point of the war. It is impossible to describe the serenity and stillness as you enter this sacred site. The cemetery sits atop the very bluff so many sacrificed so much for. It overlooks the beach and the sea with the inscriptions on each cross and Star of David facing west – towards home.
You can also learn about some of the servicemen buried here, including Theadore Roosevelt Jr – son of President Teddy Roosevelt. At age 56, he was the oldest soldier deployed during D-Day. Partly crippled with arthritis, he landed on the beach with his men and was forced to fight in the battle with the aid of a cane. The Niland brothers, whom Saving Private Ryan was loosely based upon, are also buried here – along with 44 sets of brothers. In all , over 9000 crosses fill the more than 70 acres. The memorial is meticulously maintained, filled with a silence and a stillness befitting the reflection each individual must feel walking along the thousands of rows of those who gave so much. The Weather is notoriously fickle in Normandy and often exhibits a gentle coastal breeze. As you stand at the edge of the memorial you can quietly whisper just loud enough that the wind can carry your words across the acres of solemn rows of crosses – “thank you for your sacrifice – you made all the difference”. In my mind, I believe they can hear us.
Visiting the 11 Memorial sites in France
Should you visit Paris, consider adding an extra day to your trip and traveling to Normandy to spend some time with those who have been laid to rest here. It’s best done by spending the night so you have the time to walk the beaches, memorials and visit the visitor center which was opened in 2007 (and I need to come back and see). You can also look up on the American Battle Monuments Commission website the location of the 10 other cemeteries in France and see how close any of those are to your travel plans. They came so far and gave so much – extending a trip for a day to spend some time with them and remember their sacrifice is well worth it.