Tuesday, August 5 - We Hit the Beach

I have started writing this segment before finishing the one about Rouen, because I wanted to try to capture some of the emotions engendered by our visit to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.  Upon our arrival at the Cemetery, we were asked to congregate at the Memorial to the American soldiers (average age: 24) who paid the ultimate price in this now bucolic and peaceful setting for a brief memorial ceremony.  After a reading from a letter by a family member of a soldier interred on the site, the National Anthem and Taps were played, followed by one minute of silence.  The very young lady who led the ceremony (Anne-Sophie) then invited any WWII veterans to join her in front of the magnificent bronze statue depicting American youth rising from the sea.  As there were no WWII vets in our company, the next invitation was to any veterans to join her, and quite a few of our number (including Gary) gathered to be acknowledged for their service and sacrifice.

Next we were each given a rose to use in the Cemetery itself to honor a fallen warrior of our choice as we wandered amongst the 10,000+ gravestones.  I never anticipated the strength of the feelings that this tranquil, exquisitely kept place would arouse in me, but to see the row upon row of crosses and Stars of David stretching almost to the horizon brought unexpected tears to my eyes and those of others around us, and unbidden sobs to catch in my throat.  I found a lone PFC from my native Maryland and gently laid the single dark red rose in front of his monument; the gesture seemed so insignificant in light of the price he paid to give us the world we enjoy today in freedom.

Our fallen heroes of Omaha Beach Cemetery...

The Cemetery is also host to a light-filled Visitor Center (very reminiscent of our own Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth) that presents those who enter with sights and sounds of that moment in time when the fate of the world hung in the balance.  There are plaques with the words of all from the lowliest of infantrymen to those of the generals and admirals whose decisions spelt the difference between life and death for them.  It is humbling to think that these men, who were on the cusp of history, could still think, not of themselves, but of their comrades and loved ones far across the seas.

Omaha Beach access from the Cemetery

All of us found ourselves wishing for more time than was available to linger on this hallowed ground, to breathe in the heady ocean breezes for which those sleeping here paid so dearly.  However, this was not to be, as we needed to board the buses to continue on to the actual Omaha Beach.  Viewing the carefree sunbathers who now occupy this strand, it is immensely difficult to envision the bloodshed, chaos and heroism that erupted here on that gray morning over 70 years ago. 

Back to the beginning of this day…

We had an early start to the morning in order to be able to be on the buses and on our way by 9:00 a.m.  Our tour guide and driver (Patrick and Gilles respectively) welcomed us to our overland transport with due consideration for our collective state of coma, and Patrick kept his commentary low-key and brief.  (He probably knew that he was losing most, if not all, of his audience to the comfortable embrace of our seats and the lulling sound of the highway under our wheels singing us back to sleep.)

One of four German Bunkers - 180mm gun 

Our first stop was near Gold and Juno Beaches, where Canadian and British troops made landings.  We took about 30 minutes to explore the ruins of 4 German bunkers (3 with 180 mm guns still in place).  The steel-reinforced concrete of these truly ugly, utilitarian emplacements is standing up to elements even as it withstood the naval bombardments or Operation Overlord.  One can scarcely imagine what it must have been like for the young German soldiers manning these dank outposts of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich to see the instruments of their imminent destruction emerging from the fog. 

Next it was off to the small hamlet of Arromanches, situated between Gold and Omaha Beaches, whose population was only about 150 on the day of the invasion.  As such, it was impossible for the locals to take care of the thousands of engineers and soldier who would have been assigned to build the temporary floating harbors that would support the first incursion with additional men and materiél.  So these crucial personnel were relegated to living in the “caissons,” large hollow concrete boxes that, once filled with Channel water and strategically sunk, would form the foundation of the harbor.

Arromanches is a charming tourist trap, whose populace is dedicated to the care and feeding of the hundreds of thousands who throng to this locale every year.  It provides a diminutive but well-thought-out Museum that gives a glimpse of the enormous operation that culminated in the liberation of Fortress Europa.  And, of course, there are the inimitable gift shops that proffer for sale all manner of souvenirs to tempt the euros out of one’s wallet.

Lunch was served at a two-story restaurant appropriately named “Aux 6 Juins” (June 6th), and then we clambered back onto our land yachts to resume the voyage to the American Cemetery and Monument on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach.  The countryside that we traversed on our way bears very few scars to attest to the intensity of the numerous small- and large-scale encounters between the Allied and German forces that occurred here in the months after the invasion and before V-E Day.  The famous hedgerows have reverted to their original purpose of delineating centuries-old pastoral boundaries now that they are no longer required as tank and infantry deterrents.  But every so often we passed a roadside monument of sorts containing one or two of the half million obstacles that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had, in his military prescience, dictated be planted on the beaches and in the waters off the Norman shores.  The wily Desert Fox of North Africa fame was convinced that the invasion would come at this spot, but was overruled by the Fὓhrer whose “superior” instincts told him the strike would come at Calais.  The rest, to coin a phrase, is history…

Late in the Afternoon

It was no surprise that the journey back to the Neptune was hushed and contemplative, whether by virtue of overloaded emotions, physical fatigue, or a combination thereof.  The hitherto unclouded azure sky had begun to be crowded with gigantic white thunderheads, but no rain found its way to muddy our return trajectory to the ship.  We had our customary briefing on the coming day’s events by Lionel in the lounge, and then made our way toward yet another culinary treat prepared by our (remarkably youthful!) chef Sebastian, who is married to one of the efficient and charming young ladies who man the Reception Desk.  As had happened at nearly every meal on the tour, we found ourselves at a table with folks whom we hadn’t met previously, so the conversation became its own voyage of discovery as stories of travel and careers were traded.

I had every intention of walking back into Rouen with our new friend Noriko to enjoy the light show at the Cathedral that so many of our group had enthusiastically recommended; Gary had already expressed his intention to pass on that particular opportunity.  But I made the fatal mistake of going back to our cabin and stretching out, ever so briefly, on the bed with my Kindle, and suddenly my decision was unmade.  Oh, well…  Luckily, Noriko’s husband Kent made a video of the presentation, which he has promised to email to us when they return to a part of the globe that has slightly faster Internet capability.  (Sorry, France, but it is what it is!)  It won’t be the same as having experienced it in person, but we are still looking forward to it.

With the happy prospect of a less structured morning of sailing ahead of us (and in spite of pooping out on the light show), I really pushed the envelope by staying up till 11:30 with my book – Woo-hoo!  Never let it be said that I don’t know how to vacation!

And so – until tomorrow!

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