meta name="p:domain_verify" content="8b08da541f8a920e6 Marie Z Johnston: Omaha Beach on the Normandy Coast

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Omaha Beach on the Normandy Coast

Just the other day while having lunch with my daughters, the elderly man sitting with his family at the table behind us began talking to me for some reason. Upon finding out we were American, he stood up, put his hand over his heart and sang 'God Bless America" at the top of his lungs. His name is Jean-MarieJean-Marie is a retired veterinarian and in his wallet he carries three black and white photos taken (by him) when he was 17 years old on the day US troops arrived in his village back in 1944.  It was his first glimpse of an American.
There were also croissant, bet we ate all those
A few weeks back while Chasing Chateaux, Steve, the lone (and courageous I might add) man traveling with three completely obsessed wild women, announced over breakfast that he would REALLY like to visit the Invasion Beaches since we were up in that neck of the woods anyway.  While it wasn't on our top 10 list of places to visit, we figured it was the least we could do given the incredible patience he demonstrated with our oow-ing and ahh-ing at this chair, that dress or the countless other 17th and 18th century treasures we gushed over. 

View of the garden in the courtyard of Hotel Poppa
We had stayed the night in the medieval town of Bayeux at Hotel Poppa, a XVIII century  former private residence owned (restored) and operated by Sophie and Phillipe, a warm and welcoming husband and wife team. With only four rooms, Hotel Poppa is a wonderful place to stay and only steps from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux (consecrated in 1077 with a ceremony significant enough to be attended by William the conqueror). 

View from our window facing the Place General de Gaulle
This ancient church, with its' soaring Gothic roof line, Norman-Romanesque crypt, original 13th century stained glass windows and two historic organs (each individually classified) is well worth the small detour.

Wandering the Cathedral is mesmerizing
The vast and soaring Gothic arches
Steps leading to the Crypt
The 11th century crypt with it bagpipe playing angels
Leaving the Cathedral, we felt somewhat small and insignificant.  It was pouring, so we opened our umbrellas, trudged through the puddles, piled in the van and headed to Omaha Beach, one of the five D Day Invasion Beaches of Normandy, hoping for clear skies.

The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Sea
That spire is the top of the beach memorial at Omaha Beach
Now, if we felt small in Bayeux while looking centuries of Catholic history in the eye, that  was nothing when compared to what we experienced at Omaha Beach.  First, it was cold and windy while we walked along the bluffs until the icy, pelting rain and pea sized hail drove us into the museum.  Then, what we witnessed (and I have been to quite few war memorials in my time) was overwhelming and so much more than what we had expected.  

One of the dozens of plaques in memory of brothers who died on the beaches of France
The thousands of young men and women who gave their lives that morning of June 6, 1944 are honored, each, out loud, by name on a perpetual loop.  Many are remembered with photos and a brief story of what happened to them or what they did on that day.  Details of the invasion planning, maps, uniforms, photos from the air and on the ground, and movies shot by young men while waves crashed, the beach rumbled and young men fell wounded and dying all around them. 

In addition to our GI's, there were Englishmen and Canadians among those storming the coast.  All told, 150,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy... yet the exact number of young men (all armies) who died on that coastline is unknown to this day. I don't know why, but I was surprised that nearly all of those young men who jumped into the icy Atlantic to wade ashore that morning were between 18 and 24 years old.

The reflecting pool at Omaha Beach Memorial
Interestingly, when visiting this vast stretch of the French coast known as Omaha Beach, one has entered the USA. 172.5 acres of American soil to be precise, where 9,387 young men and women have been laid to rest and the names of 1,557 missing are inscribed on the wall of a semi circular inner garden. This was the only thing the American Government asked of France after helping to defeat the Nazi army.  No military base, no natural resources, no forgiveness of debt (dating from the American Revolution) no involvement in the post war government - nothing. Just this land - to serve as a memorial to the "ultimate sacrifice", made in the name of freedom for the world to visit in perpetuity.

Nazi bunkers are still visible in the distance, against the hills
Over lunch we talked about what we saw and felt.  We wondered why most Americans, especially the younger generations, know and care so little about this important piece of our not so distant history - yet in France people of all ages talk about WWII as though it were still fresh. 

A traditional Gallette Normande of ham, egg and cheese

Sparkling hard cider is the beverage of choice, not wine
We determined that this place should be on every American's bucket list... and a part of every American's childhood.  This is a place Americans should want to visit.  Why?  Because we need to remember there was a time when dignity, freedom and pride of country was not about wealth and multinational corporations.  A time when our national honor was a point of individual self respect and America, with all it's flaws, was revered because it stood for, and aspired to, all that was noble and decent.

This Monday, the 28th of May, is Memorial Day.  Flags across America will be flown at half mast until noon in remembrance of more than a million men and women who have given  their lives in the service of our country - in all of our wars, at home and abroad.  While we will not attend a BBQ here in Paris, or grill hot dogs and burgers on our terrace, I will think of Jean Marie singing God Bless America,(well, not like THAT) and his parting words:

"If you are French and you wake up in the morning, eat, drink or make love - it is only because all of those young American men gave their lives so we could be free."
~ Jean-Marie

Have a wonderful and safe Memorial Weekend
 A bientot,

Memorial Day Sonnet
We're here to honor those who went to war
Who did not wish to die, but did die, grievously,
In eighteen sixty-one and in two-thousand four
Though they were peaceable as you or me.
Young and innocent, they knew nothing of horror ---
Singers and athletes, and all in all well-bred.
Their sergeants, mercifully, made them into warriors,
And at the end, they were moving straight ahead.
As we look at these headstones, row on row on row,
Let us see them as they were, laughing and joking,
On that bright irreverent morning long ago.
And once more, let our hearts be broken.
      God have mercy on them for their heroic gift.
      May we live the good lives they would have lived.
 ~ Garrison Keillor ~
(A Prairie Home Companion, May 29, 2004)

Omaha Beach through Bayeux is just 3.25 hours by car from Paris, an easy overnight trip which allows plenty of time for detours, church visits and Calvados tastings.

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Rachel said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and moving post. I am a US citizen and live in the UK. I once accompanied a group of World War I veterans on a trip back to France to visit the battlefields. This happened during the 60th Anniversary of Armistice Day. It was a privilege to accompany them. Lots of Americans never travel outside their own country and until they do I think their view of the world is skewed.

Dawne Polis said...

What a wonderful post! Reading about Jean-Marie and his spontaneous act of gratitude toward Americans made my eyes well up. Would that all Frenchmen thought of us in that way! Also loved hearing about Bayeux, as we are headed there again this summer.
Thanks for this, Marie!

Alice said...

Thanks for your eye witness and review of the history facts from your recent visit to Normandy. Your photos were the right fit with your thoughts. When I was growing up my dad, a former Marine, would make sure to attend a Memorial Day service and I would go along. It is easy to think that Memorial Day weekend is just the start to summer here in the US. Merci to Jean Marie! And the D-Day Anniversary is coming up, too in 10 days. God bless all the military families!

Marie Z said...

Dear Rachel, Dawne and Alice,

Thank you for your comments... especially on this post as I was nervous to share it. But the experience with Jean-Marie was so moving for my two daughters and I, and my experience at Omahama beach just the week before so powerful - I felt as though Jena-Marie had been sent as if to say "Write it, share it... it's important." and for me, it was. I'm gald it was for you too. All the best, Mz