Last time I said I’d tell you about Normandy today. Spring is a beautiful time of the year to visit just about any place in the world and true to a popular song, “April in Paris,” and France in general is a magnificent time. Flowering trees abound and gardens of tulips and other spring flowers are gorgeous with colorful patches in all the cities and towns.
Normandy, named for the Norman Kings centuries ago, was particularly beautiful, not unlike the Kenai Peninsula in as much as it is a separate area, identified by location as much as temperament, of a larger governmental body. It has a coastal presence along the English Channel defined by fishermen, but inland a more pastoral identity of horse farms and apple orchards. It is difficult to realize that much of what we saw was rebuilt from fields of rubble as little as 70 years ago.
The first stop was the Normandy American Cemetery, one of 14 permanent American cemeteries in Europe. The grounds on a beautiful spring day were green and lush.
The cemetery covers about 173 acres on the cliffs above Omaha Beach and is beautifully maintained. It is precisely laid out, the white grave markers aligned in absolutely straight rows from all directions. Nearly 10,000 servicemen and women are buried there, the graves marked with a Star of David for the Jewish soldiers and Latin crosses for the others. Among the markers, engraved with name, rank and hometown of the fallen, are 370 unknowns.
The grounds include a chapel, a memorial, and a visitors’ center along with well-placed statues, and an overlook to Omaha Beach besides the ten burial plots and a “Garden of the Missing.” We were fortunate to be able to participate in a wreath laying when we were there, a solemn and moving ceremony.
Next on our tour was a stop at Point du Hoc, the cliff top where the Nazis were burrowed in, ready to bombard any invaders from the sea. The bunkers and some small artillery pieces are still in place and craters from the allied bombing very evident. The point itself is not unlike standing on East Foreland, looking up and down the beach.
Many high school students were present on the day we visited. According to our guide, France in WWII is still taught in the schools. These students walked around apparently interested in everything and taking notes for that inevitable paper due at the end of the field trip. A few took a selfie in the bunker or against the view of the monument proving they were indeed teenagers.
Our high schoolers hopefully will never have to acknowledge war on the homeland. While these particular students were at least two generations removed from the desolation, it was apparent that they had a recognition of the action even we older tourists didn’t fully appreciate. It is difficult to remember, in 2016, just how primitive war was in 1944. These students were trying to grasp the difference and understand the reason for the Allies to physically scale a 100-foot cliff and then fight a battle hand to hand to liberate a foreign land at a tremendous cost to all countries involved, theirs included.
Caen, the largest town in the war zone, was leveled by Allied bombers by September 1944. Nothing was left standing but the church steeple. Pictures and newsreel movies show a devastated landscape with the steeple standing starkly in the foreground — devastation hard to realize in view of the beautiful city that sets there now.
It is home to a magnificent museum dedicated to world peace. Newsreels, posters, snapshots and other artifacts of the world before 1945 and the world after 1945 are displayed in settings easy to meander through and grasp the significance of in relation to the theme of the museum. It would have been easy to spend the day there.
Finally, of course, Omaha Beach. A monument stands to honor the fallen, surrounded by offerings left by tourists and loved ones before us. The beach itself is wide and windy, and one look around, even today, underlines the difficulty of storming that sandy windswept area to climb the massive cliffs and rout the enemy.
It occurred to me that we are the final generation that has a tangible connection to the happenings of D-Day. A father, an uncle or a beloved older brother was real, and not a picture on the piano or a newspaper article in a scrap book or a gold star in a frame hanging on Grandma’s wall. Those school kids at the Point whose fathers probably made the same field trip recognized the beaches from names in a history book and traced the battles through their grandparents’ memories, not unlike us tourists, who pay homage to the same history, only with a slightly different perspective
We drove back to Le Havre through apple orchards, grazing cows and deciduous forests. A beautiful countryside grown up from rubble. I finally understood “Stay calm and carry on.”
Virginia Walters lives in Kenai. Reach her at email@example.com.