I gazed out at the waves breaking on the narrow beach and behind me at the looming cliffs above on a cloudy, cool September day and I knew how the young men felt on that terrible day in June 1944. Seeing the shoreline only yielded an intellectual understanding of the lay of the land and water. Across the road another experience hit me.
We were visiting Omaha Beach, along the English Channel in Normandy, the most deadly of the landing spots that had been divided among the Americans, British and Canadians.
The small area to the left of the road led to a concrete pier built once the forces had secured the beach. Unlike Pont du Hoc, which we had visited earlier, the land was not pocked with holes made by bombardment from the ships and planes. In fact a road stretching to our right along the water led to a string of vacation cottages. And the landscape we had driven through to get here was peaceful, bucolic.
The tour guide explained the unfolding of events here, and when I asked about the cliffs to our left, he said, “Of course they did not land on this side, because those cliffs would have been so difficult to scale. ” I walked across the road, where the bluffs behind the beach cottages rose more gently.
When we stopped at Omaha Beach, the tide was in so the gravely beach was very narrow. That is when the American invasion force meant to land. But one thing and another delayed their landing until the tide was out and the soldiers had to struggle for hundreds of yards through low, muddy water, with no protection from the artillery fire coming at them from the land. Landing craft went down and many drowned before they made it to shore. Those who got to shore, exhausted, had to crawl through sand with nowhere to hide until they made the bottom of the bluff. The tanks that were to protect them had gone down in the water.
And when I walked on that part of the beach where the largest number of soldiers had struggled ashore, I could feel their terror. I could hear their cries of anguish. I’m not generally a believer in ghosts and lingering spirits, but I do not know how else to explain the visceral understanding that enveloped me on that beach.
2200 Americans dead. The survivors terrified. The vast majority of them under twenty years old.
And yet, by the end of that first terrible day, they owned the beach and by the next day they had advanced inland to join the armies that landed at Utah and Juno, Sword and Gold.
Ken was reading Jeff Schaara’s The Steel Wave: A Novel of World War II, the story of D-Day and he explained to me the strategies and things that went wrong and the play of personalities as we traveled through the area.
And the visit to the beaches strikes all Americans as a kind of holy pilgrimage, made so by the lack of commercialization. We had a bus tour out of Bayeux and drove through countryside where some of the dreaded hedgerows still exist. These were formidable barriers to men and even tanks with a ditch, and then a mound and full grown trees and bushes on top.
We were struck by the use of the leavings of war as in these fences made from the steel mesh laid down as the base for airstrips. You see these fences throughout the area. The experience is enhanced by the normality of the landscape that was so frightening 68 years ago.
We ended our tour with a visit to the American Normandy Cemetery. Walking among the rows and rows and rows of white crosses–only part of the men who were lost here are buried in this ground–I felt no ghosts. The spirits linger down on the beach below.
[All pictures here were taken by Ken Badertscher or Vera Marie Badertscher and are not available for copying without permission.]
See the whole story of Normandy at this excellent American Battle Monument Site.
Ken and I were the guests of the Bayeux Travel Office and Normandy Sightseeing Tours for a half day battlefield tour of D-Day Beaches.
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Remembering (The War in the Pacific museum in Fredericksburg TX)
Veteran’s Day (last year’s tribute to family)
Secrets of the Code Talkers (at Tahomablog.com)