It has been seventy-six years since the Allies landed in France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and still people travel to Normandy to see the beaches and visit the cemeteries.
My father served in North Africa and Italy during World War II, so I never planned to visit the D-Day beaches, but now I have done so twice. Once on a cruise around the British Isles, and again in September 2016 on a tour of Northern France. Both times I came away humbled by the sacrifices made there.
The D-Day invasion was a massive undertaking, with over 156,000 American, Canadian and British forces involved. Code named Operation Overlord, it was the largest amphibious landing in history.
The invasion started the night of June 5th as paratroopers were flown into France behind the German lines. One of the most famous stories is about the paratrooper who landed in the charming town of Ste. Mere Eglise, where his parachute caught on the tower of the church in the middle of a fire. Visitors can view a replica of the trooper hanging from the tower.
One of the most impressive sites is at Pointe du Hoc, the location of German bunkers in between Omaha and Utah beaches that fired shells at the Americans during the landing. A contingent of Army Rangers climbed the cliffs to take the high ground. There’s a monument to them.
The stone plaque at the monument reads:
To the heroic Ranger Commandoes… of the 116th inf. under the command of Colonel James E. Rudder of the First American Division attacked and took possession of Pointe du Hoc.
The site has been pretty much left as it was after the battle, with the exception of the memorial and the grass and other plants that now grow there. It is a truly spectacular spot, with gorgeous ocean views. It’s hard to imagine what a hell it must have been seventy-six years ago.
The most moving part of the day’s tour was the visit to the American Cemetery at Colville, not the only D-Day cemetery. On the way, we passed the site of the first American cemetery, now reduced to a single memorial stone. The Colville site is a beautiful cemetery, meticulously maintained. Gazing out at the rows and rows of grave markers, most with crosses on top, but some with Stars of David or crescents, drives home the extent of the sacrifices made that long-ago day, and the mere thought of it brings tears to my eyes.
The generation that fought in World War II is rapidly dying off, sadly, some from COVID-19. I wonder if we will ever see their like again.