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Published: February 25th 2015
Normandy and D-Day are easily recognized words meaning the greatest amphibious assault in human history that brought the end of WWII in a little less than a year. I was privileged enough to get and spend a day touring the sights during my recent trip to France. I stayed in Bayeux which was liberated by the British and not touched during the war so the town is just as beautiful and authentic as it was before the war. Many of the restaurants and various places in town have signs thanking the liberators and welcoming veterans and maybe it is all a tourist ploy, but I did not get that feeling walking around the town. These people are still very thankful for the sacrifice that all the Allied troops made to liberate the French people from the Nazis.
The day of my tour started with being picked up at the doorstep of my hotel, which was very nice. From the hotel our tour guide, Olivier, started to give us a brief WWII history and the events that led up to D-Day. Our first stop on the tour was a place that I think is often forgot about and we do not always think about, the German Cemetery. It is easy to forget that the Allies were not just firing at dummies or aliens or something, but there were children, brothers, fathers and grandfathers on the other side. This is really brought to life in the German Cemetery as most of the Germans who fought at Normandy were either young or old because the Nazis were not expecting an attack there. There are boys as young as 14 buried in the cemetery and many of the soldiers were not there on their own accord, rather being forced. This is illustrated by the statues of a mother and father looking out at their children on top of a hill that houses around 200 unknown soldiers in the middle of the cemetery. It is also interesting to compare the German Cemetery and American one. There are over 21,000 Germans buried here, with two to a grave with only a plaque on the ground, whereas the Americans have a cemetery nearly twice as big with 9000 soldiers, each having their own grave. Interesting to see how the "enemy" is nearly forgot about and if it were not for private donors, the cemetery would not exist at all. I think in America we have this belief that all Germans were Nazis, but this is far from the truth. Having spoken to some of the German international students, they all have family members that never returned from the war and most the time, that is all they know, they did not return. It makes the War that much more human.
After the German cemetery we headed to Sainte-Mere-Eglise. This town was in the middle of the battle on D-Day and is home to the Airborne Museum. In the middle of the town is the church where to this day a soldier hangs from the steeple with his parachute caught up. This is of course a mannequin, but still a remembrance to its liberators. Inside the church there are even two stained glass windows dedicated to the airborne soldiers that liberated the town. One of the windows has Mary surrounded by paratroopers and the other has Saint Michael, their patron saint. After looking around the church we went to the Airborne Museum before heading out to Utah Beach. This beach was the easiest to take with 24,000 troops easily overwhelming the 70 Germans. The weak German defenses were because the American troops actually landed at the wrong beach, but General Theodore Roosevelt said that it didn't matter and that they would start the war here. The beach is exactly that, a beach. The locals and French people use it regularly during the summer, along with Omaha Beach and this is just how the veteran's want it. The veterans say this is what they fought for and love that the beach is used by all people as a beach. After Utah Beach we headed to Pointe-du-Hoc. Here the war was really brought to life by the massive bomb craters and being able to go inside the German bunkers. It is incredible to stand where some German soldiers stood and look out and think about what they saw. Some 150,000 troops storming their way through the water. At Pointe-du-Hoc we also got to see those famous cliffs that somehow the Army Rangers scaled in ten minutes. Quite an incredible feat when looking at the cliffs. After Pointe-du-Hoc we got to see a memorial to the 101st Airborne Easy Company and a memorial to Major Dick Winters. If anyone has seen Band of Brothers, I saw some of the sights, the most famous being where Dick Winters sets up the plan to destroy some German artillery. This move by Winters is still studied in West Point today.
We finally made our way to Omaha Beach and it is similar to Utah Beach. It is used by many people for summer holidays. I could easily see why this was the most difficult beach to take. The beach is five miles long and nearly 300 yards wide during low tide. This massive size created a long time for the Germans to fire on the Allies. After the beach we headed to the American Cemetery. The American Cemetery was very emotional. Visitors are able to walk amongst the roughly 9000 graves and look at each name of the soldier. Some of the graves are for unknown soldiers and read "Here Rests In Honored Glory A Comrade In Arms Known But To God". Seeing the many unknown soldiers is quite something. It is even more emotional when I thought about what our guide said, "There are over 9000 different stories here". When you think about the stories of each soldier the cemetery becomes much more human. The final scene that I will always have of the cemetery is when at 4:30 the two American flags were lowered and folded to the playing of Taps. This brought a tears to my eyes as I stood there and thought about what I was witnessing. It is something every American should experience.
My trip around the D-Day sites was an amazing experience. Actually being able to see the difficulties that the soldiers faced and were able to overcome is remarkable. I also realized how important it is to see both sides of war because it affects more than just "the good guys". It is also important that behind every soldier, dead or alive, there is a family and a story to go with them and that is just as important as their service. A big thank you to all veterans for what you do and your sacrifice is warranted, so Thank You and God Bless.
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