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Published: October 26th 2017
We decide that today (Monday) is the day we'll head to the D-day beaches. We're going to follow the advice given by good 'ol Rick Steves and work our way East to West beginning in Arrowmanches.
We get an early start. We have no idea how many tourists are in the area and I would like to get a few places in if it gets crowded. I wish we could be alone. I have a feeling that the emotions might be a bit overwhelming.
We arrive in Arrowmanches and there are only a couple of cars in the lot closest to the Landing Museum and the Tourist Information Center. We head into the TI first to get any tips they might might be able to offer and set out on a 10 minute walk to the top of a nearby bluff to see a 360° movie about D-day.
The slog uphill reminds me of living in Cincinnati and that I need to lay off the croissants! (There is absolutely no humor in this day AND it's gloomy, threatening rain and chilly. I have to keep myself from being a blubbering mess and I haven't even seen or heard anything yet.)
The theater building overlooks the beach area where the Port Winston was assembled. *More on that in a minute* We have just a few moments to look at the town from the bluff before heading inside.
There are probably 25 other people in the theater. The film starts and within moments I start to cry. They show the servicemen preparing for their missions, smiling, laughing and enjoying their time together. Thankfully the film does a good job of not focusing on the loses but instead showing us how important the day was in establishing a foothold that would ultimately lead to Hiltler's demise. We hear from, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, FDR and Eisenhower. It is done well enough that I have had a chance to compose myself before the lights come up.
We walk back to town to the Landing Museum and begin to look around. A reoccurring sight all day is the French people bringing young children to see and hear about D-day. Sometimes we forget that June 6th isn't just about us. We were liberating an occupied country. One that was very grateful (and Normandy will always be American/Britain/Canadian friendly for that reason).
The Landing museum is all about the artificial port that was assembled in the 10 days after D-day. They started the building process 2 years before in 1942. It was an amazing accomplishment. The reason for the port was to be able to resupply our troops once we gained that foothold. They have really interesting displays, a slide show and a film which detail the foresight, preparation and execution of Port Winston. Fascinating stuff.
The next stop is the somewhat intact German bunkers of the Atlantic Wall. Hiltler had ordered the fortification of the coast of Europe in anticipation of an Allied invasion. These bunkers were stocked with anti aircraft guns and long range weapons that could hit targets 12 miles away. It is this defense system the Allied forces needed to defeat on D-day. The bunkers in two areas are still preserved enough to give us a good idea of what we were up against. There are 6 bunkers at this stop. 3 of them still have old guns in them.
Driving further West, we come to the first of the two American beaches, Omaha. Here, there is a beautiful museum and the heartwrenching American cemetary. We enter the museum first under heavy security. The building is so wonderfully done. The movie has surviving family members recount their loved ones stories. For Americans, I'm not sure it's possible to remain unemotional. The displays are designed to tell the story of Operation Overlord and give us a perspective from the serviceman's point of view.
The most moving secetion of the museum is the Hall of Remembrance, a dimly lit bare hallway where the names of the dead and the missing are announced one by one. The hallway then opens into a circular room. It, too, is bare except for an 18 inch bed of stones which outlines the room. In 6 spots, displays recount the heroism of the surviving, the dead and the missing. Raw, powerful, emotional.
We head outside to breathe in some fresh air as we walk to the cemetary. It is overlooking the English Channel. On a clear day, it must be gorgeous. This gray day fits my mood.
The 9,000+ crosses and Stars of David in the cemetary are a stark reminder of the cost of war. Each cross/Star is simple: Name, date of birth, date of death and the U.S. State. Other crosses have no name for the unidentified soldier at rest. There is a circular chapel in the center of the 4 quadrants. We step in and each say a prayer for the men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that evil could be defeated. It is a slow, thoughtful walk back to the car.
The next stop is Pont du Hoc. Tactically, one of the most impressive sights along the coast. Army Rangers climbed the cliffs, tasked with taking out German bunkers on top. It was just like scaling a castle wall. Great big grappling hooks were fired up to give the men their climbing ropes/ladders. The losses were great but the Rangers won the battle. The terrain is still pockmarked with craters from the artillary fire and a few bunkers built right on the edge of the cliff face remain.
It is getting late and we are onto our last stop of the day, Utah Beach. As I read our info, I realize the museum there closes at 5pm. We have 45 minutes to drive what the GPS says takes 38 minutes. We will be cutting it close! I'm going to channel my inner French driver.
Rain, traffic and a distant parking lot are all working against us! We pull into the lot right at 5pm and Whitson walk to the museum. The admission desk is clearly closed but there is a lady still there to tell us there won't be any more admissions. I clap my hands together in a pleading gesture and promise not to take long. (They are open for another hour) She looks at me, asks if we are American and then asks if we can pay in cash. Yes and yes! By the grace of this rather stern looking French woman with a heart of gold, she lets us in!
I have never doubted Rick Steves nor ever been critical of his advice but he got this one wrong. The Utah Beach museum and the beach itself should be the starting point for any American seeing the beaches.
The museum is fascinating and we don't have enough time to do it justice but, honestly, after a full day I'm not sure how much more information I can take. I cry through another well done film, look around the museum as much as our time will allow and head outside to the beach.
This is the beach I envision when I think of D-day. Long desolate stretches of wide open sand. It is windy. It is peaceful. It is the perfect end to our day.
The Greatest Generation. God bless them. Forever heros. There will never be another like them. ♡
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