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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Normandy: A walk through history

Sixty-six years ago today a group of young men performed and act of extreme bravery and changed the course of history. That of course was the D-Day landings at the beaches of Normandy. Growing up a Navy brat with a father who is a walking WWII dictionary, I've seen probably every movie ever made about the D-Day landings (it was sort of a Sunday afternoon ritual for my dad to watch as many black and white WWII movies as he could find on TV), and being an Army spouse I've seen Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers more than a few times. Personally I think every high school child in America should be required to see both, bad language and all. Having seen all these movies I thought I was fairly familiar with the beaches at Normandy. I was so wrong.
When my dad came to visit us back in December for the Bastogne Memorial Walk we drove to Reims and then on to Bayeux in the Normandy region of France. For those of you who may not not, Normandy is not the name of a town or city, but a region (kind of like a state in the US). We headed to Sainte-Mère-Église, Dead Man's Corner and Utah Beach.

Replicated Soldier who got stuck on the church after parachuting in

Memorabilia from Lt. Winters at Dead Man's Corner

Dead Man's Corner

Utah Beach

We were overwhelmed by all that we had seen, but did not know what was to come.  The next morning donned bitterly cold and we dressed warmly before heading back to the beaches.  Our first stop was Pointe Du Hoc, which was just in the news yesterday.  I knew little about Pointe Du Hoc, but the walking WWII dictionary (my dad) filled us in on the drive there.  The cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc held German concrete bunkers armed with 155mm guns (captured from the French) and would be devastating to the landing parties at Utah and Omaha beaches.  The Rangers were to scale the 100+ feet cliffs and take out the Germans.  A few days prior to the assault the guns were moved inland.  Apparently the "brass" knew this, but did not inform the Rangers as the casemates and bunkers were still a threat to the landings.  There's some debate about all of this, but really, it doesn't play into what happened.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, approximately 230 Rangers scaled the cliffs and fought the Germans at the top.  They went in search of the missing guns and destroyed them.  At the end of almost 2 days of fighting, of the 230 Rangers, only 90 were still in fighting condition; the rest either dead or wounded.  Think about that as you look at the photos below.  Think about these young men scaling these cliffs knowing that they faced the enemy when they reached the top.  Look at the rows and rows of barbed wire.  These were incredibly brave men.

Craters from the bombing raids

Indy and Mr. HH in a crater

After Pointe Du Hoc we headed towards the Mecca of all WWII historical buffs: Omaha Beach.    The landings at Omaha Beach are chronicled in the opening scenes of  Saving Private Ryan which is touted as being one of the most realistic representations of this event ever filmed.  Like I said, I'd seen it several times and thought I had a pretty good idea of what we would be seeing.  What we actually saw took my breath away.  I could not in my wildest dreams comprehend the scale of this beach.  It's not a small beach.  It is huge and deep. I had no idea how far these men had to go once they hit the beach.  Remember that they came in at low tide to avoid obstacles in the water (we visited at low tide too).  As we stood at the head of the beach looking out over the water, my breath was taken away.  The wind was whipping around us, but we walked down to the waters edge, which took us  a good 20-30 minutes and we weren't weighed down with gear, waterlogged or being fired at.

From the top of the beach

This is my favorite photo of my dad at the beach. 

I took this about a quarter of the way up the beach (from the water).  Look how far they had to go.

We were relatively solemn on the beach.  Indy asked a few questions about the battle but was mostly interested in picking up sea shells.   After wandering around we headed to the cemetery that overlooks the beach.  It was more than overwhelming.  I have to say I was so proud of Indy.  He's been to enough military cemeteries to know how to act, and he was incredibly respectful on this day.  As we looked out over row after row of white crosses he looked up at me and said quietly "Mom, there's a real hero under every one of those crosses."  The tears that had been hovering at the edges of my eyes flowed freely after that.  I told him he was absolutely right.  There is so much I could say about this cemetery, but nothing I could say would properly express the emotions we felt.

This cross really brought out the tears.  The letter reads: To the dad I never knew.  A true American hero.

My dad as they were taking down the flags.  I didn't get a photo of Mr. HH and Indy, but they both saluted as well, Indy with the Cub Scout salute.

Sixty-six years ago today the men under many of these crosses stormed a beach at unbelievable odds because the had a job to do.  A job that many of them knew they wouldn't return from.  These men were truly part of the Greatest Generation.  Remember them today and appreciate their sacrifice for our freedom every day.


blueviolet said...

Thank you for sharing that with us. Like you, I had no idea how incredibly vast that beachfront was. Such solemn history.

Kristine said...

Great post, thank you. Wow, it really brought out the emotions in me. My dh is a D-Day buff, and we've often visited the National D-Day Memorial that's nearby. We visited the Bedford town cemetery last month where several of the Omaha beach soldiers are buried, here's the link (which also includes a link to one of our D-Day Memorial visits).

Thanks again.

emilyosburne said...

I think Normandy is one of those places we all have on our must-see list. Thank you for taking us there, even if we haven't visited in person.

Tina said...

Well this is awesome. You are totally linked:

(plus I finally noticed you weren't on my sidebar and added you to the blogroll. :-) )

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