I visited the Normandy landing beaches on a cold, rainy, miserable day, a day much like the stormy dawn when 200,000 Allied personnel debarked on D Day, June 6, l944. A fitting day for remembering the 10,000 Allied soldiers who died on the “longest day” of war.
A half-century after the Rangers overtook the strategic German lookout at Pointe du Hoc, I stood on the steel reinforced bunkers and peered over 100-foot drop off above the English Channel. I could picture a 19-year-old American boy jumping out of a PT boat into icy waters illuminated by gunfire. I could imagine him staggering across the dunes dodging bullets, clawing at the red cliffs, crawling through the hedgerows, groping for life in a foreign land. He was one of ours. Disorientated in fields criss-crossed by trees and hedges, trying to maneuver tanks through stone villages, shooting at the shadows that could be his own comrades, he was an American soldier killing Germans who could have been friends in another time and generation.
I am of another time and generation, an American with French-Normand spouse, and German friends. Knowing the fair-minded, kind-hearted, Europeans as I do now, I cannot fathom how such an atrocity could occur. The war-ravaged countryside is not the Normandy I know. On rainy days, Normandy’s landscape may offer a bleak reminder of her sad past, but on sunny ones the murky coastline, black sea, and gray fields are transformed into a tapestry of colors. The beauty and tranquility of Normandy today in a ray of sunshine could drive full-grown men to their knees in tears. I, too young to have understood the impact of WWII, get a lump in my throat every time I return to the land of my in-laws in northwestern France.
Today the sacrifices of the men of WWII, their silent testimonials of white crosses lining the hills above the famous beaches Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha hold special meaning. My countrymen, laid to rest in my adopted country, saved my family.
If those soldiers were to land on the Normandy beaches this June, they’d be surprised. Parasols have replaced Rommel’s asparagus (spiked metal posts preventing ships from landing). The 400 miles of wide white sand and dramatic cliff line extending from Le Treport in the east to Mont St. Michel in the west, is strewn with half-naked, live bodies worshipping the sun and sea.
Millions of visitors follow the “circuit du débarquement” along the coast from Pegasus Bridge to Cherbourg stopping at every WWII historical spot and all eight museums. The one in Arromanches gives a general overview and explains how the artificial port was made. The Museum of the Battle of Normandy in Bayeux, containing ration tins, tattered letters, faded photographs, and other mementos of WWII foxholes, is the most affecting one.
In Upper Normandy, my late grand father-in-law, Marcel Elie, a Gendarme, used to welcome me to his home in Dieppe by greeting me at the door playing the American national anthem on his trumpet. He blew that same trumpet while riding his horse leading the Allied troops down the Champs Elysees celebrating the liberation of Paris on August 24, 1945.
His old heart never forgot. Now, even though my generation never knew the horrors of world war, I too, will remember. When I stood in front of a field of 10,000 stark, white crosses, I felt overwhelmed by a debt that I can never repay. I know the Unknown Soldier. He is my father, my brother, my countryman, who died so nobly, so that today I might live in peace in a land whose splendor offers its own thanks to the skies.
Rest in peace my comrade in arms. You have not died in vain. If my words could transcend time you would know that because of you Normandy today, like the true Normans, remains proud and gracious.