Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Normandy D-Day Sites

Normandy D-Day Sites
September 22, 2009, Camping St. Michel, €13 with ASCI discount, Free WiFi (pronounced wee-fee like Fifi the poodle)
Sunny and warm
By Claire
We woke up really cold this morning, a first. Turned on the heater and jumped back into bed to try and absorb some heat from each other while we waited for the camper to warm up. Very strange, considering the rest of the day was quite warm.

We doubled back to the places we missed yesterday. I didn’t want to miss the German and American cemeteries and particularly wanted to see Omaha Beach. Besides, we were with 30 minutes of all the sites.

We started with Pointe du Hoc and the Ranger Monument. This was a heavily fortified German position along the coast. In order for the American landings to succeed, the allies decided to take out this cliffside battery. This is from Rick Steves’ France book:

“300 US Army Rangers were handpicked to attempt a castle-style assault of the cliffs, using grappling hooks and ladders borrowed from London fire departments. A massive fire-engine ladder extended from a bobbing boat that Rangers climbed to reach the top of the cliff in the heat of the battle. Only about a third of the Rangers survived the vertical assault. After finally succeeding in their task, the Rangers learned that the German guns had been moved. Nonetheless, the taking of this jutting cliff was important to securing the safe landing of the American forces.”

We walked all over this bombed out landscape, left just as it was found after 10,000 tons of Allied bombs exploded, creating numerous craters.

It was a very real experience imagining young German soldiers bunkered down waiting for the assault. We wandered into bunkers and down into where they lived. Everything was so peaceful and it was such a gorgeous day with the ocean a deep blue, and sail boats bobbing, it was hard to really imagine “the enemy”. I also think of them as just like us; young and fighting for their country just as our young men did. They had mothers and fathers too. We ran into a guy from Chico State who was with a group from Texas A&M and Tennessee State. They are studying the concrete and trying to figure out how the Germans built this place. I noticed sea shells in the aggregate on the stairs they had made. When I mentioned it to Chuck, he thought I was talking about ammunition shells. Just the difference between men and women……

Ranger Dagger Monument

What a contrast this day is from June 6, 1944

We moved on to the German Cemetery, Cimetiere Allemand, the resting place of 21,000 German soldiers. This place was quite beautiful. Two graves per dark marker.

The Visitor’s Center was very moving with personal stories, quotes from letters home, and photos of young German soldiers who had lost their lives.

I think this says it all

Our next stop was Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. Along the way we stopped at one of the many French Aires, nice little rest stops with pique-nique tables and shade trees. We enjoyed the polka dot cows who visited us when we pulled up next to them. It was a good idea to fortify ourselves for the American Cemetery and the emotions we would experience.

First, we arrived at “Omaha Beach” according to Suzette. It had a commercial feel to it. Maybe “Restaurant L’Omaha” and “The D-Day Restaurant” was the tip off. The memorial was beautiful but the laughing, disrespectful tourists were a bit much.

We walked to the Memorial Museum but there was a charge of €5.80 and Rick Steves had said it was free. Now, we may be cheap but this just felt wrong. So we left. Hopped into Homer and decided to follow signs to the cemetery. What a difference. So beautiful. So groomed. So special. We went through a security check then found that the 2:00 pm free guided tour in English would begin in 5 minutes.

Our two French guides were wonderful and really made it personal. First we stopped at a typical white marble cross and they explained how to read the rank, name, city in which they enlisted and date of death. Each was buried according to when their body was received, not according to rank.

Next, we stopped at the cross of Mary Bankston from New York. She was a Private First Class Postmistress with the Army, assigned to organize and distribute a 2 year backlog of mail, covering three football fields. Working 24 hours a day, in 3 shifts, she and her co-workers were able to distribute all the mail to the soldiers. Imagine the lift to the morale to those soldiers. She was special because she was a woman and because she handled this assignment in 3 months, and because she was black and part of an all black unit.

We moved to the headstone of a young man from Bedford, Virginia. He was one of 22 out of 34 from that town of 3,000 who were lost on D-Day.

And then we were taken to the headstones of the Niland Brothers who were portrayed in “Saving Private Ryan”. There are 41 pairs of brothers buried here; 33 are buried together side by side. 9,387 white marble crosses and Stars of David can be seen, row after row. 409,000 Allied and German troops were killed in the Battle of Normandy but many family members chose to have their loved one’s remains sent home.

Omaha Beach Today

We ended the experience with a 16 minute film back at the Visitor’s Center. It was quite absorbing and moving. Leaving the Visitor’s Center we walked through the Garden of the Missing with all the names inscribed on the walls. This sculpture represents hope ascending from the waves.

It was a somber day but something I’ve always wanted to do. Normandy is an amazing area of France. The food, the people, and the history, from the Tapestry of the 11th Century to D-Day, to today. We decided to drive the 157 kilometers to Mont St. Michel so we could have a full day tomorrow to see it as well as St. Malo and Dinan in Brittany, our next region to visit in France. We drove through lots and lots of small farms on small roads lined with stone houses and barns, flowers, cows, green fields and mown hay. One such road had a small car pulled over. As we rolled toward him, his look was priceless: “what the…..?” I guess we do look a bit large on these small back roads.

However, Chuck was having big problems shifting into gear and we had to pull over a few times along the way. We plan to call B&W today to try and figure out what to do.

We ended the day at camping St. Michel with this sunset during our dinner.


Baguettes and 2 pastries, €3.35
Camping, €13,40

Total: €16.75

They sacrificed their futures so that the next generation would have one.

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