On Tuesday morning, the hotel breakfast room called my name, and I stuffed myself silly with crêpes and toast before I made a few quick sandwiches to last me the rest of the day. I will forever call this move “pulling a Kaia”, in honor of my thrifty comrade who refused to buy food the entire time we were in Paris. Hey, you gotta save money somehow.
I had decided the previous day to book a guided tour of the D-Day beaches, after realizing that there was really no other way to see all the sites in the short amount of time that I had. I’m so glad I did; I was able to see a lot more than I ever would have been able to on my own and got a much better insight into the general timeline of things.
I met the minivan at the town square, and joined the rest of the daytrip group: two young Belgians and four retired Frenchies. As it drizzled outside, our Norman guide drove us to the westernmost point of the D-Day events, St. Mere Eglise, where the first Allied paratroopers parachuted into France the night before D-Day. We went to the church where John Steel famously caught his chute on the bell tower and was stuck for several hours, floating above the German guards’ heads before he was discovered and briefly captured. Luckily for him, 156,000 Allied soldiers were about to bust up in St. Mere Eglise and spring him out before he’d been imprisoned even one day.
We also checked out the small airborne museum just across the church, which specifically commemorates the members of the British 82nd Airborne and their struggle to make sense of the land before the masses arrived in the morning. So many of these parachuters drowned in marches from the weight of their own equipment, got tangled in trees, or simply landed right on top of Nazi soldiers, like John Steel. It’s amazing that the majority of men were able to land undetected and regroup in time for the morning invasion.
Next, we drove to Utah Beach, where my great-uncle Carlos landed. I spent some time walking along the beach and thinking about how lucky he was to have come in on the westernmost flank. From a strategic point of view, Utah was clearly the easiest of the five beaches to capture, with its sandy dunes and flat farmland as opposed to the sheer cliffs of Omaha. Being the easiest of the five doesn’t mean it was a simple job, though. Two hundred men lost their lives on Utah Beach alone. Needless to say, it was both a sobering walk, for those who died, and a grateful one, for my great-uncle and his victorious navigation of the beach.
Right on the beach is the Musée du Débarquement, which holds tons of equipment and other paraphernalia from the landings, including several plaques about the Combat Engineers (my great-uncle’s group) and their work after the landing in building bridges and roads for Allied vehicles to cross. Shockingly enough, the war wasn’t over on June 6th. The Allies still had to make their way through every hedgerow and forest in the rest of France and Europe, and it wouldn’t have happened without the logistical efforts of countless support personnel beyond your average infantryman.
After a quick lunch in the sleepy village of Isigny-sur-Mer, we drove to Pointe du Hoc, the westernmost cliff of the German stronghold in 1944. The battery was blasted to bits by the Allies in the months leading up to June in an effort to blow out their cannons, and the craters are still everywhere. We crawled down to the underground German barracks and saw the remains of the monstrous guns, which swiveled 360 degrees on rolling bases and would certainly caused major casualties if they hadn’t been destroyed by the Army Rangers just before D-Day. Like a grand piece of theatre, months and months of preparatory attacks went into the D-Day invasion, and without them, that one show day would have been impossible.
As we approached Omaha Beach, I mentally prepared myself for a difficult sight, and it was clear that the rest of the group was doing the same thing. The other tourists had been very careful around me all day long, as if they felt that, as an American, I was more likely to become upset during the tour. As I told them about my granddads and great-uncle, they offered their thanks for their service and sacrifice. I felt a rush of gratitude for the group’s kindness and understanding of my family’s place (and thousands of other families’) in this big history. The group stood in a circle around our guide and discussed the death statistics of the site. It’s sobering to think how many of those boys died before they could even hit land. Of the total 10,000 casualties of the invasion, nearly half took place on Omaha. Were they scared? Did they even realize the gravity of the situation before they saw the coastline? We now know that the military leaders expected up to 80% losses on D-Day, but did the average infantryman understand that he was not statistically supposed to survive the landing? What a terrifying thought.
After some moments of quiet reflection on the images our guide had laid out for us, we moved on to the American Cemetery, and I was suddenly on American soil for the first time since January. In contrast to the sadness and hatred for war I felt on the beach, the cemetery was calm and welcoming. It was a sad sight to see the names of hundreds of MIA soldiers listed along the marble walls of the entrance, but the 9000 graves themselves were hauntingly beautiful. I thought of how blessed my family is to have had three men survive such a terrible war, and I was glad to see that those who paid the ultimate sacrifice were given a small token of the world’s appreciation in the form of a beautiful resting place.
I could have spent all day in the cemetery, but our tour had to continue. We drove to Arromanches to learn about projects after the initial landing-the Mulberries and Gooseberries. After the five D-Day beaches were captured and linked together, the Allied forces needed to move equipment and people between the South of England and Normandy quickly and efficiently, and for that purpose the Mulberry Project was born. The mulberries were essentially huge prefabricated floating harbors that could be assembled in sections and used as bridges between ships and the coast. Unfortunately, the biggest thunderstorm in thirty years happened to be brewing just as the mulberries were completed, and they were torn to pieces before they could be much use. The Allied effort didn’t stop for a little ole storm, though, and the tanks kept rolling in. By the end of 1944, all of France was liberated, and World War II would soon be over.
I returned to Bayeux on Tuesday night with several thoughts running through my head. First, an even bigger distaste for war than I had before I came to Normandy. No matter how eager they are to serve, young boys should not be sent to die in foreign lands for causes they do not understand. That is my personal opinion and I will always stand by it. Contrarily, I felt an immense gratitude for those same kids who, however naively, chose to fight for the freedom of people they had never met and unhesitatingly went into battle knowing that they could die. That is a kind of courage I don’t think I’ll ever possess. Third, it was fulfilling to experience the kindness of the international community who commemorated our fallen heroes in the most respectful way possible. Above all, I felt thankful for the grace bestowed on my family, and proud of the three men who served and survived. To Poppy, Jay, and Carlos: Thank you, thank you, thank you.