Tuesday 9/8/09

Today was our “D-Day day”.  We began with an early morning visit to the Normandy Liberation museum in town.  It provided the background information to the entire Normandy liberation, including details on D-Day as well as the consequent battles in northern France.  It featured perspectives of the leadership, personnel, equipment, and day-to-day life of the soldiers for the campaign.  Not only did it give the main points of the armies, but also some of the little-known things that I especially enjoyed: General Montgomery, the chief of the British forces, named his two cocker-spaniel-esque puppies Hitler and Rommel!  After the museum, we took a 7-person tour of battlefields, and our guide was full of interesting information.  We started at the site of the artificial harbor, which was the first of its kind ever.  He talked about its construction by using old ships for the base, how the British hid the concrete platforms from German intelligence by sinking them in the harbor then filling them with air to lift them, and how incredibly efficient they really were in terms of tonnage that they were able to support.  Our next stop was one of the (many) German artillery batteries.  The guns were truly imposing, and the bunkers were as solid as the day they were made.  Our guide told us that despite unloading all of their ammunition, the Germans were unable to hit any American ships offshore because in the time it took to relay the ships’ locations from the spotter to the guns, the sea and currents had moved the ships, and the shells fell harmlessly into the water.  Our next stop was the American Cemetery.  If you have never been, it was one of the most emotional experiences of my life.  Seeing the white marble markers in perfect lines contrast against the perfect green grass and blue cloudless sky, it is a beautiful scene, but there is an incredible unspoken feeling that comes up with being there.  I have seen pictures of it before, but as soon as I caught sight of the thousands of crosses under the flag, I was hit with an incredibly powerful emotion that can hardly be described, a combination of responsibility, sadness, and mostly admiration for the men that served and the sacrifices that they made.  Especially visiting at the age of 20, approximately the age of most of the men there, it left me with a sense of clarity and uncertainty that I will never forget.  After that, we headed to Omaha beach itself.  Surprisingly, there were natives swimming and sunbathing at the beach, and safe for a commemorative statue, you could mistake it for any other beach in the world.  The guide (a native Frenchman) said that he explains this as symbolic of how life has been restored, and that French children are the story of the campaign and it will not be forgotten.  Unlike many of the movie representations, the beach itself was very wide, just like any on the Jersey shore, whereas Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day seem to show the beach as narrow. Looking at the beach today, it is hard to imagine what happened 65 years ago, but I suppose that the return to normalcy is what the mission of the liberation was all about.  After that, we drove along the coast and could see the German bunkers as little holes in the hillside.  We arrived at Point-de-Hoc, where the Rangers scaled the cliffs to disable the batteries to support the beach landings.  Interestingly, when the Rangers arrived at the top, the artillery had been moved inland, so they arrived onto nothing!  Overall, it was a spectacular day, and was a trip that I would recommend to everyone.

Of course, today was also my parents’ anniversary.  We have a history of going to war sites on family events (Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, on my dad’s birthday), so we ended the evening on a lighter note, with a nice dinner at a restaurant in town.

Tomorrow we set out from Bayeux back to Paris in the morning, and then catch the Eurostar train to London via the Chunnel.  More to come…

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