Brett and I and two of our sons were in Europe this year combining training and vacation. During a break we spent two days in Normandy, France. It was a humbling experience. The day we visited Omaha Beach the sky was overcast and the wind was churning the ocean waves. The tide was low as well and the waters edge was all the way out to exactly where it was when the Allied Expeditionary Forces landed on that fateful day June 6, 1944. I stood at the waters edge and looked back from the sea to the green hills and cliffs that stretch from one end of the horizon to the other. There were few people in either direction. There are no billboards, no souvenir stands, no carnivals and no development, save a hotel and a lifeguard station that rents out beach-sailor’s that fly up and down the vast sands on three wheels.
From the waters edge to the first small sand berm that could be used as any kind of protection from incoming fire is easily 300 yards. The beach itself is very level and the sand is fine and clean. There is a continual row of water-smoothed pebbles that is just before the berm and it measures about twenty to thirty feet wide on average. This sand berm and this fragile ribbon of pebbles were all that the soldiers had to cling onto when they hit the beach assuming that they could ever reach them. They were young men, nineteen years on average. They were armed with gear that by today’s standards would seem antiquated. Canvas, wool, brass fasteners and wood stocked rifles were all that they had. They were of a generation that did what was asked of them with few questions and little fanfare.
The German bunkers are well hidden. Some of them meld into the earth so that one cannot discern their walls or firing slits from the thick grass from twenty yards. They must have been hell to find. The walls are very, very thick. On one sloping, concrete face the deep gouge of a naval shell still remains visible and you can put your hand into it and feel its path as it skipped off harmlessly into the sky above. It seems hopeless against such a stout and resolute adversary. There are fifty caliber holes in some of the rusted steel doorframes that are slowly dissolving with time. There are three-inch shell holes as well and numerous small-pitted holes from rifle fire that appear here and there over what little area of the bunker was exposed. Someone fired these and someone pressed the trigger to make each of these hits and one wonders whatever became of the men that hurled such bee stings at such a great giant.
It is very peaceful on the beach. One can be alone with thoughts and there is almost a reverence that infuses the salt air on these shores. A small sign here and there accompanied by a faded photograph hidden in the tall razor grass might tell of what transpired on a certain spot on that day and it all seems so surreal. There are bunkers all about and all of them look right down the throat of the beach daring anyone to assail them and yet the young soldiers did just that. It must have been sheer terror to have covered all that distance under waterlogged gear and seek refuge within a small band of pebbles or behind a sagging sand wall that could be cut through with one burst of machine gun fire and yet they still came. Their names are as varied as where they hail from. There are 8,387 buried at the Normandy American Cemetery.
The white crosses are carved from white marble and they follow the camber of the earth perfectly. You can stand in any direction and face nothing more than symmetrical rows flowing out in all directions. Most of the men died on that single day and most of them were kids. The museum displays the gear from that time and there are letters that are stained with saltwater and blood. They are simple letters written to mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and to girlfriends and their words belie none of the terror that was to befall them on that fateful day. They spoke of simple things such as food and their fellow soldiers and of the people whose land they had come to liberate. It is heart wrenching. The museum and the cemetery directly overlook the beaches. The cliffs are right there. The bunkers are right there. And the soldiers are right there. They are eternally embraced in a united peace in a single place from the result of one day in 1944. They were remarkable young men.