Sunday, June 6, 2010

The D-Day Beaches

As I write, it's now June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. Susie and I visited the Normandy American Cemetery and the D-Day beaches yesterday. Here are a few impressions and images.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial lies on slightly sloping ground just above Omaha Beach. The Americans who died on this beach are buried right next to sands on which they fought.

In all, more than 9,300 Americans are buried here, most of whom were killed in the landings and subsequent operations.

Because the anniversary of D-Day would be marked the next day, the cemetery had many visitors, of many different nationalities.

A new Visitors' Center presents the inspiring and moving story of D-Day and the men and women who began the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. With images, text, displays, and video, the exhibits help you appreciate the circumstances, heroism and sacrifices of the 150,000 people who carried out the D-Day invasion.

Omaha Beach, below the sandy cliffs of what is now the cemetery, proved to be an arduous and deadly place for the soldiers who landed there. Despite bitter fighting and heavy casualties, by the end of D-Day the U.S. 1st Division had scaled the cliffs and taken the high ground on which the cemetery stands.

Utah Beach, the location of the second American attack, was still deadly--German bunkers lay behind the dunes--but not as treacherous as Omaha Beach. The U.S. 4th Division quickly took the beach and pushed inland.

The first village in France to be liberated by the Allies was Sainte Marie du Mont, a few kilometers from Utah Beach. When we visited Saint-Marie-du-Mont yesterday, the center of the village around the church had been transformed into a recreation of D-Day just after the village's liberation. We saw sandbags, tents, jeeps, parachutes, soldiers and nurses everywhere.

It turns out that this was part of a large-scale recreation of D-Day, with military role-playing enthusiasts from all over western Europe taking part. We chatted with a man from Belgium, wearing an American army uniform from World War II, who had come to Sainte Marie du Mont for this recreation.

A command post, complete with period typewriters, occupied the courtyard of a building opposite the church. A Frenchman, also in an American uniform, crouching behind the improvised desk, told us that this spot was, in fact, where the Americans had set up their command post.

All kinds of activities were taking place around the church, ranging from serving food and drink from an army-style tent to an educational program for children, a dozen or so of whom, all dressed in camouflage, were seated on benches in a tent.

There were army jeeps everywhere. When we first saw these, on our way to the Normandy American Cemetery, we did a double-take. But then they kept coming. We think that people could rent these. So there were jeeps taking part in the D-Day recreation and other jeeps with people, some in uniform, who were just sight-seeing. We also saw larger trucks, many motorcycles, and a half-track.

From Sainte Marie du Mont we drove over to Sainte Mère-Eglise, which was the setting for some of D-Day's most dramatic moments. We ended up not seeing much of the village because, as we got there, our car ended up in a traffic jam caused by the start of a memorial parade. Cars were parked everywhere, crowds lined the streets, and police officers were directing traffic. After 20 minutes of bumper-to-bumper crawl, we were waved through a gap in the parade's line of cars and managed to escape the mess. From the car, as we passed, we did spot the church on which the American parachutists got stuck, but we'll come back some other, less harried day to visit Sainte Mère-Eglise.

Even from our brief visit to these two villages, it's clear that the American liberation of this area forms an important part of both their history and their present. The main street of Sainte Marie du Mont is named for the U.S. 101st Airborne, and the roads near Utah Beach are named for U.S. service personnel. At Utah Beach, among the American monuments to the soldiers, engineers, and others who began the liberation of France and Europe, there is a memorial from the village of Sainte Marie du Mont recognizing their liberators of June 6, 1944.

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