Rain was falling in a steady rhythm as we settled into our seats for the two-hour bus ride. It was the first stormy weather Herb and I had encountered since traveling in France, and in a way, it was a fitting backdrop for our somber destination. We were headed from the port of Caudebec-en-Caux to the D-Day landing sites of World War II.
About halfway through the drive, we picked up our guide who would be leading the tour. Tauck’s tour directors had billed him as an “encyclopedia of World War II,” which turned out to be a bit of an understatement. The very serious gentleman took his seat at the front of the bus, pulled out a thick binder of visual displays and rarely took a breath for the rest of the day.
I had mistakenly thought that this would be an overview tour – as these group excursions tend to be – and I was eager to expand my limited knowledge of WWII. Our guide, however, dove right in with the details – battles, generals, code names, strategies, types of tanks – a starting place that assumed we were all WWII history buffs who possessed a conversational knowledge of said topics. I felt as if I had enrolled in French I, but had mistakenly walked into French III!
Some Brief Background
On June 6, 1944 – forever known as D-Day – Allied forces from the United States, Great Britain and Canada landed at dawn on five beaches along France’s Normandy coast. The beaches were code-named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history and marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.
The forces succeeded in capturing much of the Normandy coast, driving the Nazis out of France, but the loss of life was staggering. Of the 156,000 troops, more than 10,000 men and women lost their lives. There were 4,414 confirmed deaths and thousands of others who were missing. The exact numbers will never be known.
Pointe du Hoc
Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory between Omaha and Utah Beaches with a 110-foot cliff overlooking the English Channel. Pointe du Hoc had been fortified with a series of German bunkers and machine gun posts, and on D-Day, U.S. Army Rangers led an attack by using rope ladders to scale the cliffs. After two days of fighting, the Rangers succeeded in their mission.
Pointe du Hoc is a forlorn place to experience, a windswept brown-toned terrain of tall grasses overlooking the English Channel. A pathway leads visitors past remnants of the war, with signage explaining what happened here, and to the cliffside spot where a memorial honoring the Rangers stands high above the shoreline.
When we reached Omaha Beach, our Tauck tour director gave each of us a white rose to place at the war memorial. Known as “Signal Monument,” the memorial sits on a stone-covered platform overlooking the beach. A second memorial – a stainless steel sculpture called “Les Braves” – is just below, directly in the sand.
The beach stretches out in both directions, ordinary in its appearance, but so sadly extraordinary because of what happened here. More than 2,000 American troops were killed, wounded or missing in this D-Day battle. Victory and loss.
What struck me most profoundly here was a sign that described Omaha Beach before the war. Back then, it was known as The Golden Beach, a family seaside resort. There were photos of houses and a hotel. The headline called it, “The small seaside resort of yesteryear.”
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
There’s no doubt about it. Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is an emotional place. The endless rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David stretch out like roads disappearing in the distance, mere dots on the horizon line. They march in one direction all the way to the English Channel, to the edge of land overlooking Omaha Beach. And they spread out in the other direction until they reach the trees.
There are 9,387 U.S. soldiers buried here. Three hundred seven of them are unknowns.
The surrounding grass is thick and green and expertly manicured. Elegant pathways are lined with perfectly placed trees, some with branches bowing down over the graves. There are monuments, a chapel, gardens, a reflecting pond and a Wall of the Missing engraved with 1,157 names.
It’s a beautiful place and an overpoweringly sad place.
As we were nearing the end of our visit, I caught a strange sensation out of the corner of my eye. A low-hanging cloud of white fog was moving quickly over some of the graves. The sun was shining, and the early morning rains had been gone for hours. I took two photos, but on my third attempt to capture the mysterious mist, it had disappeared.
A man in our group nodded to my camera and came over to show me the photo he had taken. “You saw it, too?” he asked. “What was that?!” I’ll never know for sure, of course, but I’d like to think it was a sign of something meaningful. After all, this is hallowed ground…and the most emotional place in all of Normandy.