The first stop after breakfast on day two was the German cemetery at La Cambe. It was still early enough that the mist had barely risen above the car. The German cemetery had only one or two other visitors aside from the three of us.
Short, heavy Maltese crosses of dark stone stand in widely spaced groups of five, the center cross slightly taller. The grave markers are flush with the ground, each bearing two names of the more than 21,000 WWII German soldiers buried in France. A large earth mound, topped with two figures separated by a large cross stands at the center of the cemetery and is a mass grave that includes more than 200 unknowns.
The sadness I felt here was different from the sadness I felt at any of the Allied cemeteries. Here, the soldiers were just as young, though not so far from home yet seemingly forgotten. Do they seem so because they died for the ‘losing’ side (and I’m descended from the ‘winning’ side?) or because I would not know any of the family names or the names of their hometowns? Is it simply because there were so few visitors when we were there or is it that the U.S. and Germany are no longer enemies, after all of that? Maybe the quiet emptiness of the landscape is part of it. I think it was for all of these reasons. I don’t know what sort of remembrance ceremonies are conducted at La Cambe. These men and boys (forever boys) must be remembered by their families and their communities, but it brought home the lesson that, for the dead, there is no winning side. Not really.
After La Cambe we drove to several of the parachute drop zones as Ralph identified the units involved and placed each location into the timeline of D-Day. Then we arrived at Utah Beach.
At the seaside bistro, Le Roosevelt, we saw the (originally German) communications bunker seized by the Americans to help direct the D-Day invasion. The bunker was just as it had been in 1944, with papers, radios and other equipment in place, hats or jackets scattered around as though the job might not be done yet. One reason the bunker was preserved is that it had been forgotten. The owner we met was the first person in years to unlock the heavy cellar door behind the bar and see what lay behind! National Geographic magazine for June 2002 has a photo of the bunker. A uniformed mannequin had been added, seated at the radio, complete with headset. There are signatures on the walls from the men who served here.
The bistro owner was pleased to meet Dad. He was too young to have served or to even remember the war, but his vigorous handshake and effusive thanks conveyed a deep appreciation for the American war effort. It didn’t matter whether Dad had fought on D-Day or ever fought on Utah Beach. He invited Dad, an American veteran, to sign the wall of the café’s dining room, covered with black and white WWII-themed wallpaper.
Jagged chunks of criss-crossed steel beams still lined the beach, rusting away and looking small as the dunes and beach grass drift around them.
I always assumed these were the things called “dragon’s teeth” but this is not true. The dragon’s teeth were square pyramids of concrete, often interspersed with land mines. These concrete dragon’s teeth seem to have disappeared from the beach, although they still exist in other places. From Utah Beach, we drove past German gun emplacements poking up from the weeds to the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. Bullet holes still pepper the confessional inside the church, remnants of the battle for the town on June 6th, 1944. (Sorry, no photos of the confessional or the bullet holes).
For the only time on the tour, it rained but this was perfectly timed – we had just finished examining a German gun emplacement and begun to tour the D-Day museum in Caen. By the time we were ready to continue outdoors, the rainstorm was over. The next stop was St. Mère Église, where a correctly attired John Steele mannequin, hangs from the church steeple, snagged by his parachute. The real John Steele had been unable to cut himself free, playing dead while Germans sniped at him from below; he was eventually taken prisoner and did survive the war. By now it was time for lunch and we stayed in town, eating at Creperie Le Feu Ardent opposite the church on the town square. The salmon and cream galette was yumm-mm-y! There was a wall here to sign as well, but I think Dad was feeling a little self-conscious, so his name isn’t on the creperie’s wall.