Archive for January, 2015

January 10, 2015

Normandy Beaches – 70th Anniversary Visit

mt st michelmere eglisenormandy Cemetaryomaho beachBefore driving into the historic battle theater of Normandy, we began our journey at the southwest coast of Normandy at Mont St-Michel, an important pilgrimage center since AD708.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is dramatically perched on a 260-foot-high rock island surrounded by ebbing and flowing tides at the westernmost point in Normandy.  It floats like a mirage on the horizon.

Heading north up the coast, our first stop is the celebrated village of Ste-Mere Eglise which served as the center of action for American paratroopers, whose objective in early June of 1944, was to land behind enemy lines in support of the American landing at Utah Beach. During the invasion, in the Utah Beach sector alone, 23,000 men were dropped from planes. The Airbourne Museum, located just off the main square is dedicated to the aerial landings that were essential to the success of D-Day.  One American paratrooper snagged the town’s church steeple and dangled there for two hours. Though many paratroopers were killed in the first hours of the invasion, they played a critical role in the success of the Utah Beach landing. Next stop, Utah Beach, where the infantry landed on the beaches, and the critical supplies followed closely. The Utah Beach Landing Museum (Musee de  Debarquement) nestles in the sand dunes and is built around the remains of a concrete German bunker.  One of the highlights of the museum are the innovative invasion equipment and videos showing details of their creative functionality. Among the displays is a fully restored B-26 bomber with it’s zebra stripes and 11 menacing machine guns – without which the landings would not have been possible. Omaha Beach D-Day Sites include four German casemates (three with guns intact) – hunkered down at the end of a country road.  The guns, 300 yards inland, were arranged in a semicircle to maximize the firing range east and west, and are the only original coastal artillery guns remaining in place in the D-Day region.  The guns could hit targets up to 12 miles away with relatively fine accuracy. Hence, a critical challenge for the eventual success of the Allies.

Our last stop along the D-Day Beaches is the poignant Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, with its 9,387 white marble tombstones on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. This expansive 170-acre plot is a dignified tribute to those who gave their lives in a battle for the freedom of Europe. We took an emotional stroll through the endless rows of crosses, and were suddenly drawn to a marker that was the tombstone of a young private from Oregon, bringing our journey close to ‘home’. As we reluctantly leave the Memorial Cemetery, nearing closing time, we passed a gentleman who asked if we enjoyed our visit. It turns out he is the Superintendent of the US Monuments Commission on his third multi-year tour here at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  Dan Neese is a resident of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It was his job to orchestrate the 70th Anniversary of the invasion of Normandy here at the Memorial Cemetery.  Talking with Dan, we learned that over 15,000 guests, including many heads of state, attended the June 6th, 2014  celebration.

From here we moved on to Bayeux, the first French city to be liberated from the Germans.A lovely small city, with a magnificent Cathedral and a museum that houses the famousBayeux Tapestry.  The 11th century tapestry is a 70 yard-long depiction of William the  Conqueror’s Battle of Hastings.

The next day we drove on to Caen to visit the ‘Caen-Normandie Memorial: Center for History and Peace’.  With videos and numerous exhibits on the lead-up to World War II, coverage of the war in both Europe and the Pacific, the Cold War aftermath, and more, it effectively puts the Battle of Normandy into a broader context.  Well worth the visit.

This ended our moving and informative tour of the coast of Normandy, a place which will forever live  in the hearts of freedom loving people worldwide.

 

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