French Friday #44: In honor of D-Day

D-Day was two days ago and I think most Americans forgot. It seems to be fading from our collective memory. The memory does not fade in France, however. Let me take you on a trip to Normandy — not to relive the battles — but to see it as it is today.

As you drive through the Norman countryside, ancient stone houses dot the roadside and fields. Almost everything is made of stone here. Large brown cows graze peacefully, supplying the milk for local cheeses such as Camembert and Neufchâtel. Even today, this area is largely farmland and sparsely populated. Occasionally, you’ll see signs on the houses advertising WWII artifacts or sometimes even mortar shells displayed in the yard. It begins to give you an idea of what this sleepy area experienced 68 years ago.

Leaving the highway for the famed beaches takes you down a long dirt road lined with scraggly apple orchards. It empties out into a vast parking lot almost completely surrounded by trees and foliage. It’s impossible to see anything beyond it. At the far end on the left, a path cuts through the trees and leads out to huge manicured lawns. You’re not there yet, but a sense of reverence has already begun to settle over the place. When you finally pass between the two brick pillars that mark the entrance to the American cemetery, the air is heavy with solemnity.

If it’s your first visit, you may be surprised at the melange of languages drifting over the grounds in hushed tones. Of course, American English is to be expected, but there are also many others. French grandparents softly recalling their childhood memories of that horrible time to their grandchildren. Italians, Spanish, shaking their heads at the tremendous loss. Japanese dutifully reverent; they understand the value of sacred places. And perhaps, most surprising of all, there are also German voices to be heard, burdened with a sense of national guilt, desiring to find a personal redemption by paying homage to the fallen American soldiers.

On the right is a large semi-circle memorial colonnade with a bronze sculpture named “The Spirit of American Youth” at its center. Behind the memorial is the Wall of the Missing, inscribed with the names of 1,557 soldiers whose bodies were not immediately recovered (some have since been found and are marked with an asterisk).

The entire memorial faces a reflecting pool and looks out across the immense cemetery. No photograph can capture the entirety and enormity of it all. 9,387 souls laid to rest after experiencing inexplicable terrors and horrific pain. A horrible triumph if ever there was one.

Beyond the graves, the sea laps lazily at the beach, belying the struggle and turmoil that took place there. From the lookout point, you can see the other four beaches through the haze. It seems peaceful and again, it’s hard to imagine the darkness, commotion, and chaos of battle.

On the hour, the chiming strains of songs of the American Armed Forces call you back to the small chapel near the back of the cemetery. It seems oddly cheerful, hovering over the graves, leaving you with a sort of bittersweet melancholy.

The price paid was tremendous and the French have not forgotten. We, as Americans, certainly should not.

2 thoughts on “French Friday #44: In honor of D-Day

  1. Jennifer, you write eloquently and we appreciate the way you bring these lessons to us, complete with photos. We just learned an interesting piece of history regarding the return of a very old municipal records book to its French origins by a WWII G.I. (my Dad) who plucked it from a stack of clothing at Dachau at the end of the war. Sensing the ancientness of said book,and its drawings and listings, and the importance of where it had been discovered, but ignorant of what it was, he brought it home to the U.S., protecting it in the hopes he would one day get it back to it’s rightful owners. In the late 1990’s he met someone who was literate in several foreign languages and who had ambassadorial contacts, and this person was able to take this book to French authorities, and they were able to get this book back to its region in France. I think of the official or clerk who took seriously the protection and preservation of said historical documents, and who in the face of his own death, probably had hopes that his efforts would not have been in vain, but rather would one day be successful. My Dad keeps the letter of thanks from the French government in his most important mementos file.

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