One year after our initial visit to the shores of Normandy and its history, we returned, determined this time to become more familiar with the area and the impact the D-Day invasion had on our world then and our world now.
Our cruise-led tour last year was interesting, but time-limited due to our ship's sailing schedule. This time, we were able to not only revisit some of the previous areas, but to find some other notable memorials to the heroes who liberated a nation and brought freedom to Europe.
Renting a car enabled us to again see Arromanches, Pointe Du Hoc and the American Cemetery, and to also find the Canadian and British national cemeteries where the members of the armed forces from those countries who died in the battle lie in eternal rest, their service to their nations fulfilled.
On a narrow road, barely large enough for the farm carts for which they were originally designed, outside Reviers Beny-Sur-Mer, a Canadian and French flag signal an easily missed turn into the Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. A massive red and white maple leaf emblem emblazoned on the ground lets visitors know these are Canadian heroes.
The first sight of the cemetery is, as expected, moving. Toward the rear, towering above the site is the Cross of Sacrifice, a silent sentry over the 2,048 markers, which includes three British soldiers and one French Resistance fighter. Near the entrance a marble slab reminds visitors of solemnity of the area with the inscription “Their Names Liveth For Evermore.”
This cemetery, and the Bayeux War Cemetery of the British casualties, are different than the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. At the American cemetery, the markers go on row after precise row, unadorned except for the occasional flowers or flags. The Canadian and British cemeteries contain various flowers and bushes planted in front of and around the markers, giving them a hint of life.
But the markers are the most heart wrenching. The American markers list basic information like name, rank, home state and date of death. These markers were more personal. While they include the same information, many were inscribed with thoughts from loved ones or Bible verses. “He had no chance to say goodbye so in our hearts he’ll never die.” “Not lost to us who loved him, not dead, just gone before, he still lives in our memory and will for evermore.” “To have, to hold, then to part, is the greatest sorrow in our hearts.” “Treasured memories none can steal, death a heartbreak none can heal: Loving wife.”
These and the many other inscriptions showed that the loss of even one of the soldiers was a loss to many others back home. So many deaths and so many left grieving, the incalculable side of war.
Craters pock the landscape at Pointe Du Hoc like those on a disease-scarred face. The thousands of tons of explosives rained down from sea and air during the initial day and immediate days after D-Day left the land barren, desolate and as dead as the thousands of men on the beaches below.
Today, those craters are refilled with native grasses, bushes and an occasional solitary yellow flower to give a hint of colorful life. Nature has reclaimed the land. It is, as always, the ultimate winner in war.
A new display gave a fresh look at the assault and the immense challenges the U.S. Rangers faced in an assault that would seem impossible. It was, instead, another step in winning the war. Peering over the 100-foot cliff (as close as safety fences and warning signs allow) gives little feel for the challenge the Rangers faced that day. (100 feet is equivalent to about a10-story building.) At the edge of the cliff, near German artillery bunkers destroyed in the assault, is the Ranger Monument, a single granite pillar reminiscent of the daggers the Rangers used. It sits as a reminder of the heroism and the losses which we all should never forget.
Seventy days after the 75th anniversary of the invasion, we walked the grounds of the American Cemetery.
Despite the gray, windy day, the cemetery was full of visitors. A large section of the cemetery was cordoned off so many of the graves were visible only from a distance, but several other sections allowed visitors to get a closer look at the markers. While the Canadian and British cemeteries allow personalization of the markers, the simplicity of the American markers gives the cemetery an air of reverence that causes visitors to speak in hushed tones with heads bowed.
At 5 p.m., the two flags in the center of the cemetery were lowered. This daily ritual brought complete silence to the thousands who stood with hands over hearts or a military salute from a veteran.
At the second flag, a rifle salute was followed by the playing of Taps as the flag, still swaying in the breeze, was lowered and carefully folded. Even after the second flag was down, the crowd remained still, some, I'm sure, waiting for the tears to stop. As the flags were taken away the crowd began leaving, a better idea of what D-Day meant forever in their minds...and in their hearts.