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Thursday, June 6, 2013


Omaha Beach in France as it is today near "Les Braves" sculpture by Anilore Banon.  Photos: Phyllis Shess, 2013.

Pointe Hoc, 2013
Pointe du Hoc, viewed in 1944,  is a 100-foot cliff eight miles west of the American cemetery.  It is where soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the cliff to disable German guns threatening Utah and Omaha Beaches.  The bomb and artillery craters are still very much evident 69 years later.

—History has fascinated me since college.  At San Diego State University, I had professors who balanced reality and what ifs to make history come alive. The what ifs stuck with me. 

It’s intriguing to mull what if this happened instead of that and how would the world be different? 

What if Confederate general Robert E. Lee was better prepared at Gettysburg in 1863 would he have been able to negotiate a peace in the South’s favor?  What if the assassination attempt on Hitler had succeeded? 

Architects for the American Cemetery's memorial features were Harbeson, Hough, Livingston and
Larson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The landscape architect was Markley Stevenson, also of Philadelphia.
Most likely, in the case of the latter, a battle day like June 6, 1944 would have occurred sometime, but maybe not as many lives would have been lost?  What would have those saved lives contributed to the world? Impossible questions to answer, yet the what ifs are profound and often bittersweet to think about.

Interred within this American soil in France are the remains of 9,387 servicemen and women. Three hundred and seven of which are Unknowns (those which could not be identified), three Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and four women. Also buried here, side by side, are father and son, and 33 pairs of brothers. Each grave is marked with a white lasa marble headstone, a Star of David for those of the Jewish faith, a Latin cross for all others. 

Recently, my family spent a cold, rainy April day exploring Utah and Omaha beaches in Normandy and the associated museum sites and memorial cemeteries.  We walked on the hallowed ground where our sons’ granddads had landed at Omaha Beach.  Mixing history with personal history is so poignant.  Tears were close to the surface all day.

In 2013, Omaha Beach couldn’t have been more serene in the morning but when the storm hit in early afternoon it was friendly no more.  In the late spring of 1944, a storm of the century hit the Normandy region and summer was slow in arriving.  Jumping out of a landing craft and trying to run fast in knee high water was hard enough.  Add in someone shooting at you from less than a city block away in 2013 and there you have another day at the office for WWII soldiers landing in Normandy or Saipan.
Sainte Mere Eglise, the first village liberated on June 6, 1944

The fact my family can remember Omaha Beach as part of a whole lifetime of memories we had with our dads made us the lucky ones. For other family’s memories of their loved one end at the tombstones at the American Cemetery located nearby.

I had nothing to do with being a soldier in WWII, but I recently received handshakes from the locals quietly thanking me because I was an American.  It surprised the hell out of me, but showed class on their part.

We could have spent a week in Normandy, especially if you include visits to nearby villages like Bayeux.  We have made a promise to return to Normandy to be among those new generation villagers, who still remember the price of liberty.

June 6, 1944:

 “The massive Allied assault on the Normandy coastline on June 6, 1944 aimed to liberate France and drive into Nazi Germany,” reads a plaque near the American Cemetery in Normandy, a province in Northern France.  
The American Cemetery is on land deeded
by France to the United States--forever.

It continues: “Before dawn on June 6, three airborne divisions—the U.S. 82nd
and 101st and the British 6th—landed by parachute and glider behind targeted beaches. Allied naval forces, including the U.S. Coast Guard, conveyed assault forces across the English Channel. Beginning at 0630 hours, six U.S., British and Canadian
divisions landed on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches in history’s greatest amphibious assault.

“The U.S. 4th Infantry Division pushed inland from Utah Beach. To the east, on Omaha Beach, the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions battled German resistance over a beach bristling with obstacles.

To reach the plateau where Normandy American Cemetery stands, troops fought across an open area of up to 200 yards, and attacked up steep bluffs. By day’s end, the
The Normandy American Cemetery
is one of 14 permanent World War II
military cemeteries abroad.
Americans held fragile control of Omaha Beach. On Gold, Juno and Sword, British and Canadian divisions forged ahead. In less than a week, the Allies linked the beachheads and pressed onward.

Over the next three months, the Allies battled German troops throughout Normandy. British and Canadians freed Caen.

Americans liberated Cherbourg and staged a dramatic breakout near St. Lô.

Allied troops, joined by French and Polish units, encircled and annihilated German troops at the Falaise Pocket while surviving [German]units fled eastward. The way was now open to advance toward Paris and then to Germany.”

The German Cemetery in Normandy en route to Utah Beach

For more on D-Day go to PBS:

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