After lunch on Day Two, we finally arrived at Omaha Beach. The weather was now sunny and a little breezy after a lunchtime shower. There were several houses facing the beach that Dad did not remember from his previous trip with Mom but no large-scale seaside development at ‘Bloody Omaha’. The sand was thirty or more feet from the water’s edge to the wall; I don’t know if the tide was in or out or somewhere in between.
The beach looked like it would have been a great place to spend a few days’ holiday.
The weather was great, which made imagining ‘bloody Omaha’ difficult. Dad did not arrive on Omaha Beach until a week or so after D-Day, making his experience different from that of the guys who landed on June 6, 1944. Even so, Dad says, he clearly remembered what they were told as they approached Omaha… ‘As soon as you hit the beach, GET OFF THE BEACH!!!’ No one needed to be told twice.
On the bluffs above the beach, at Pointe du Hoc, the grass grows, covering but not disguising the bomb craters, looking like a vast green bedspread that has been completely rumpled by children jumping on it. The memorial obelisk at the cliff edge was fenced off with razor wire because the cliff is collapsing. A side note – research work is ongoing to determine how the site is deteriorating and to offer recommendations on making the site safer for visitors.
As we drove along the narrow Normandy roads, the height and thickness of the hedgerows impressed me. No wonder they were the bane of tanks – they were extremely effective tank-stoppers – and a mixed blessing for soldiers on foot – providing great cover – but cover for either side. Dad remembered spending his first night in Normandy hunkered down at the base of a hedgerow and, at one point, hearing Germans moving along the road on the other side. The roadway is several feet below the level of the land around it and the hedges tower yards above the dirt. I wondered why so much of the Normandy countryside looked like England. Turns out that hedgerows were a Norman farming technique that crossed the Channel a thousand years ago.
At the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, the headstones are a sea of white marble crosses dotted with stars of David. The markers are laid out in perfectly aligned ranks and files and even the diagonal alignment is perfect. The engravings face away from the entrance, meaning no names appear on photos taken from this vantage point. This initial impression is of countless, nameless dead; all these warriors part of something bigger, but the scale of loss underpinning the ultimate gain is distressing. There are days when I wonder if the living have made the most of these sacrifices. Standing at Colleville and La Cambe or any military cemetery will do that to a visitor.
Even if you are not the sort of person given to public displays of emotion, it is almost impossible to visit this place, or any other like it, and not be moved by the landscape before you – not just the crosses, but the stunning view of the Channel. The best view on the coast is for those who will never go home. The water of the Channel is visible through the trees at the edge of the bluff. Omaha Beach is just below but, fittingly, is out of sight. Read the inscriptions on the memorial and inside the chapel; ponder the descriptions of the battle on the huge maps on the wall; the human cost hits you sooner or later and that cost, spreading all around you, is breathtaking. We visited the grave of Teddy Roosevelt, Jr, who is buried next to his brother, Quentin. Teddy Jr died of a heart attack during the Normandy campaign. His headstone carries an inverted 5-pointed bronze star, denoting that he was a Medal of Honor recipient. Quentin, a casualty of WWI, was moved from his original grave to rest next to his brother. We were leaving the cemetery near closing time as the flag was being taken down for the day. ‘Taps’ was playing, but it sounded like a recording. How sad if there is no live bugler to play this piece each evening. Our war dead deserve a live bugler, wherever they rest. Every day.
Another now-idyllic location on this super-packed day was La Fiere Bridge and the Iron Mike memorial to the 82nd Airborne. The bridge was ultimately secured when a handful of Americans armed with bazookas took out the three German tanks on the bridge. The farmhouse just above the bridge provided cover for other Allied soldiers; a dovecote near the end of the drive is still there, shell casings still embedded in the walls, both inside and out. The farmer has accumulated a treasure trove of wartime relics in his stone cellar – everything from mess kits and helmets to ammunition and weapons and he plows up new items most years while preparing his fields. He asked Dad to sign his “livre d’or”, a special guestbook he keeps with signatures of returning veterans, which Dad did.
Our military itinerary completed for the day, we were ready for dinner.
Back to Bayeux and a lovely meal at Le Petit Normand, in the shadow of Bayeux cathedral. An aperitif of calvados, cidre and cassis was followed by a terrine canard Normande. My main dish: salmon in cream with cucumber, spinach and fettuccine – similar flavors to my lunch that day, but fantastic nonetheless. One of the great things about French restaurants is that they have several types of wine in half-bottles – perfect when only one person is having a particular wine. I chose a petit Chablis; Dad had some Kronenbourg beer with his steak/frites. Dessert was apple sorbet with Calvados, followed by café au lait. Ahhhh. Trés, trés bien! An indulgent end to an incredibly moving day.