Sunday, May 6, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day – Omaha Beach

At Omaha Beach, char a voile, low-slung three-wheeler contraptions with a seat and a sail, scuttle across the sand like crabs—just one of the twelve leisure activities available. Vacationers can enjoy the four-mile beach, hotel, snack shops and sport equipment while, just up the hill, almost 9,500 Americans lie buried at the American Military Cemetery and Memorial.
Parachutist hanging from church in St. Mere Eglise

Normandy is full of juxtapositions like this. Everywhere, in thriving cities large or barely visible on a map, are memorials of the war, from the American parachutist who got caught on the church steeple in St. Mere Eglise (A figure still dangles along with his billowing chute. See the movie, The Longest Day, for more details.) to tiny Picauville's memorial to downed American pilots.
Picauville's Memorial
The French clearly know that getting on with the future requires a remembrance of what has come before. In this part of France, they do both well.

They donated the Omaha Beach land north of the holidaymakers' beach to the US government in 1979, and the resulting memorial and cemetery is impressive and inspiring. The path from the parking lot through landscaped grounds filled with flowering shrubs and manicured trees leads the visitor to the two-level center where displays, films, and memorials recount the events leading to D-Day. The biographies of certain soldiers and the stark passageway of gray walls where the names of the dead are endlessly recited personalize the war, while graphic details of the logistics required to bring about the largest invasion in history that eventually lead to Hitler's defeat are recounted in several multi-media panels.

After leaving the visitor center, David and I walked along the path overlooking the beach on our way to the cemetery. We envisioned the scene from the movie, Saving Private Ryan, because veterans say it is the most accurate depiction of that morning, 6 June 1944, when so many Americans died. As we imagined the men facing the challenge of traversing that wide, golden beach with the enemy ensconced behind bunkers up on the ridge, the visitor center, closing for the day, played Taps. David and I both wiped away tears.
We thought we were emotionally prepared for the cemetery, but, then, I suppose nothing prepares you for the sight of white stone crosses and Stars of David as far as the eye can see. As if by prearrangement, David and I wandered apart, each going a different way through the rows and rows of memorials, able to cope only with our own thoughts. Dazedly, we walked past one and then another and another white marker. By the time dusk was falling, neither one of us had found a way to escape the evidence of so much carnage.
Practicalities -
Don't skip the visitor center as it is a moving prelude to the cemetery memorial itself. There are bathrooms and water fountains inside the building as well as housed in a separate building near the visitor center. Everything, the parking, visitor center and cemetery, is free—as it should be.

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