75th D-Day anniversary: A visit to Normandy stirs the soul
By Donna Krache
Special to the MDJ
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kennesaw resident Donna Krache is a former news producer who teaches journalism at Georgia State University. In anticipation of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Krache chronicled for the Marietta Daily Journal a recent tour she took of Normandy and its historic D-Day sites.
Our train departs Paris Saint-Lazare station. It leaves the city and flies through miles upon miles of dairy farms and small villages. All passengers can see are green pastures dotted by cows and small houses. The settings are reminiscent of what you’d see in World War II movies and TV shows like “Combat!” that some of us remember from the 1960s.
In less than three hours, we arrive at Bayeux. We exit to a tiny station with a few benches and vending machines, and a ticket window staffed by a lone clerk. This medieval city is home to about 14,000 residents and several historical sites, including the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of William, Duke of Normandy, who became King of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
But our destination today is the beaches of Normandy, with a focus on one of the greatest military achievements of modern history. In town, we board a van that will take us to the American Cemetery and D-Day landing sites. It’s about a 20-minute ride through more farmland, as serene and picturesque as the train trip we just made.
Our guide is Anne Gosselin. A lifelong resident of Bayeux, Gosselin has made it her mission to preserve history by sharing her family’s story of the German occupation and Allied invasion.
As we drive through the countryside, she tells us the Germans spared Bayeux from destruction when they invaded France in 1940 because they wanted to use the town as a base for their officers. German officers took over her grandparents’ home, but the Germans allowed them to stay in the house to take care of it and its new inhabitants.
Gosselin says there was little warning in town about the invasion: The Allies dropped leaflets in advance of D-Day, but they were blown away by high winds. Her grandparents only knew what was happening when they saw American soldiers in their backyard.
Our first stop is Pointe du Hoc, an outpost atop a 100-foot cliff. Operation Overlord began here, early on the morning of June 6, 1944, with a naval bombardment. The Allies needed to seize this vertical cliff and plateau, halfway between Utah and Omaha beaches, because its battery of artillery could wipe out Allied invaders on the shoreline below.
That morning, 225 Army Rangers under the command of Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder were tasked with scaling the steep cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. The task was complicated by rough seas and thick smoke from the bombardment. Despite this and fierce resistance from the Germans, most of the Rangers made it to the top. But after two days of fighting, only 90 of the 225 survived. The Rangers’ heroic assault resulted in heavy casualties, but it paved the way for the Allied invasion and prevented a German counterattack.
We tour the remnants of Germans’ concrete observation bunkers. There is a plaque to the heroes of the 2nd Battalion inside one bunker. Visitors can look out from within, as German troops once did, over the English Channel.
The Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument is a towering granite statue the French government erected to honor the Rangers under Rudder’s command. It stands atop a bunker and faces the sea. Its words of gratitude are inscribed in French and English at its base.
About seven miles to the east of Pointe du Hoc lies the American Cemetery on bluffs overlooking the beach.
Built in 2007, the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center provides a perspective on the scope of the D-Day invasion as one of the greatest military achievements in history. Nearby, the Garden of the Missing contains tablets inscribed with the names of 1,557 troops. Some whose remains were later identified and buried have rosettes next to their names.
A memorial colonnade displays two large maps detailing Operation Overlord and a 22-foot bronze statue titled “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”
The cemetery is peaceful and lush with green grass and trees, even in winter.
Grave markers are aligned with perfect military precision in an everlasting salute to the fallen. There are 9,380 heroes buried here. Most of them died in the D-Day landings and battles that followed in Normandy. Most graves are marked with white marble crosses. Some 149 are marked with Stars of David, but that number is not representative of the Jewish casualties at Normandy, because some troops were buried in Jewish cemeteries in the U.S., and some did not identify as Jewish, fearing that Nazi capture would result in their being sent to concentration camps. That did not deter these troops from bravery on the front lines of the war.
Four women are buried here. Three are African-Americans who were part of the 6888th Postal Directory Battalion. They died in a jeep accident in July 1944. Our guide tells us that the fourth woman was one of the Red Cross “Doughnut Dollies,” who died in a plane crash.
There are three Medal of Honor recipients buried in the cemetery, including Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the U.S. president. Their graves are marked with gold stars.
A circular chapel sits in the middle of the gravesites. It’s a small but powerful presence. Inside, its ceiling displays a painting of America blessing her sons as they leave for war, and a grateful France bestowing a wreath on the fallen.
At 4 p.m., the American flags are lowered, one at a time, to the playing of taps. Everyone stands at attention. There is no other movement, no sound, except for the music and the wind. There are tears among many of us.
Spc. David Harding of Smyrna was an infantry team leader in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He says this flag ceremony “drove a level of emotion that few places have an ability to do.
“You can almost feel the presence of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” Harding said. “You are reminded of how lucky you are to live the life you do.”
There is one more stop: Omaha Beach, the largest of the five beaches where Allied troops went ashore, and one of the two assigned to American troops. The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties on Omaha that day.
Since access to the beach from the cemetery is restricted, we drive down to the site. It is dusk.
On the shore, the stunning Les Braves Memorial is lit in soft amber. It is a sculpture of seven stainless steel columns, the largest of which is 30 feet high. Les Braves was commissioned by France’s government in 2004 in observance of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The sculpture consists of three elements: The Wings of Hope, The Rise of Freedom and The Wings of Fraternity.
It’s a symbol of victory, a fitting sight to a day canvassing a wide range of emotions.
As we board the van to take us back to the train station, Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Basile of Westbury, New York, a veteran of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, describes his Normandy experience as “surreal.”
“I can’t even imagine the emotions coursing through the minds of these soldiers: the fear, anticipation, and sheer magnitude of the historical military operation that was about to take place,” he says. “It was a true honor to be surrounded by such brave men.”
A visit to Normandy stirs the soul and ignites a wave of emotions, from grief to gratitude to pride. This sacred ground yields a new appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy, thanks to the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation.
And we also leave with a feeling of hope, knowing that when humanity joined forces to defeat evil, it happened, and if the time comes, it will happen again.