This past Fourth of July weekend, 2021, my husband Steve and I visited the five beaches of the World War II Normandy invasion in France. I felt at the time that once I returned home, I wanted to share the experience in a Blog. However, after several weeks of trying to process it all, I felt overwhelmed. Where does one begin? How do you encapsulate that much history, that much heroism, that much sacrifice in a simple Blog, and should a person even try? So much has already been written.
Would my words sound trivial? No wonder so many veterans find it difficult to share their stories. Yet, for my own sake, I wanted to put it in writing. There were some memories, some photos, some facts and quotes I didn’t want to ever fade from my memory. Some photos are from museums we visited; some quotes from books I browsed through in search of that personal, emotional connection.
Shortly after midnight, June 6, 1944, 13,000 paratroopers descended from the sky to secure their objectives and await additional troops arriving by sea. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower in charge of Operation Overlord, decided to invade in part because the weather was rough and Nazi planes were grounded. However, this also created complications for the Allies. The paratroopers missed their intended landing zones which caused some confusion on the ground.
“I wondered where the heck I was when I hit the ground. I spent all night trying to find my way in the dark toward my rendezvous point near the coast, dodging enemy patrols the whole way.”
– Jan De Vries
In the dark of night.
Behind enemy lines.
A movement in the bushes.
A simple handheld clicker
to know if it is a
friend or foe.
One click: Are you an ally?
Two clicks: Yes!
Dawn breaks the morning of D-Day. Ground troops land across five assault beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword which stretch along 50 miles of coastline.
Three of the code names for the beaches were named after types of fish: Goldfish, Swordfish, and Jellyfish abbreviated to Gold, Sword and Jelly. Winston Churchill considered “Jelly” to be inappropriate, so it was changed to Juno.
The invasion consisted of 73,000 Americans who landed on the beaches of Utah and Omaha; 61,715 British troops landed at Gold and Sword; 21,400 Canadians landed at Juno.
Planes dropped 13,000 bombs before the landing, but they completely missed their targets, resulting in Omaha Beach becoming a horrific killing zone, with the wounded left to drown in the rising tide. (The movie “Saving Private Ryan” portrays some of the events that took place here.)
“This struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful, and unrelenting harshness.”
– Adolf Hitler
“For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.”
– Edmund Burke, British political statesman 1729-1797
“Oh Kitty, the best part of the invasion is that I have a feeling that friends are on the way.”
Anne Frank – Diary entry on June 6, 1944
Steve and I take a few days to walk all five beaches. I walk behind my husband, himself a veteran, and capture a few photos of him, lost in his thoughts. It was the same when we walked the paths at Gettysburg.
“The soil of France is really a sacred soil. All those who follow the path of freedom must feel themselves penetrated by the spirit of camaraderie and solidarity which animated the soldiers of the Allied forces who fought along this road in 1944. The same unity is still necessary if we are to maintain respect for human dignity and freedom in the world and ensure peace for present and future generations.” – General Dwight Eisenhower
As we walk Omaha Beach, we pass by an older gentleman who is sitting on a stump alone, gazing out to sea over the dunes, with a far-away, wistful look in his eyes. I find myself wondering if he is a veteran – where his thoughts are taking him. A little later we walk by a memorial statue, and I’m struck by the similarity of what we had just witnessed.
After leaving the beaches, we drive back to the town of Ste. Mere Eglise, the first city in France liberated by the Allies.
The town square with its beautiful 12th century church was the scene of intense fighting, the night the paratroopers made their landing.
Paratrooper John Steele from Metropolis, Illinois (home of Superman) found himself caught on the church steeple, dangling from his parachute. Three hours later he was captured by German soldiers and taken prisoner. Four days later, he managed to escape and find his way back to the front line. The village of Ste. Mere Eglise chose to memorialize him and placed a replica of a paratrooper dangling from the steeple.
A film crew descended on the village in the early 1960s and produced the iconic movie “The Longest Day” on this site, which was later released in 1962, and catapulted John Steele to fame.
Steve and I take the time to walk around the village square in front of the church, where there are various displays of old war photos of the town and quotes from various veterans. I snatch a few photos of the veterans with their grizzled faces and eyes that had witnessed too much pain and suffering.
There are various before and after photos of the town buildings, as well as old photos of veterans in front of the church. There are photos of G.I.s handing out candy and gum to the children and receiving kisses from young French girls. There are photos of soldiers helping the elderly. These were not cold-hearted killers; they were young men with kind, compassionate hearts, and a willingness to lay down their lives for the cause of freedom.
A few years ago, thousands of people descended on this town to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.
The day we visited the streets were quiet and peaceful and much more conducive for reflection. We enjoyed the feeling of having the town to ourselves to explore.
We ended our visit to Normandy with a visit to one of the large cemeteries with row upon row of white crosses. Once again, we were grateful to not have to deal with masses of tourists. A group of teenagers walked by laughing and chatting away, but for the most part, visitors were very quiet and respectful.
I walked between some of the rows and just wanted to stop in front of one cross for a few minutes of quiet reflection, to pay my respect and just to feel like I had made a personal connection. One cross seemed to catch my attention – the cross of Jack Catlin from Oklahoma. I stood for a while and wondered about Jack. Was he an only son? Did he leave behind a sweetheart? Had they planned to marry after the war? He died an unsung hero, and yet I stood in front of his cross that day and honored him, along with the thousands of others buried with him. Words seem inadequate to express any kind of gratitude. Willy Parr (British 6th Airborne Division) said it well, “They gave up all their tomorrows for our today.”
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13