The D Day beaches
One Saturday morning I woke with a start. I took a quick look at my watch lying on the nightstand next to my bed and realized that I had forgotten to set my alarm. I was about to miss the bus, so I threw on a pair of flip-flops and ran several blocks to catch the bus just on time. There was no way I was going to miss this excursion, alarm clock and shower or no: I had always wanted to see the beaches where the Allies landed in Normandy on D Day and the cemeteries that honor those who had fallen there.
The first stop was the Mémorial de Caen. Caen, a small city in Lower Normandy, felt the full brunt of the D Day assault, including heavy bombing by British and Canadian warplanes that destroyed much of the city and killed some 2,000 of its inhabitants, as well as intense fighting between Nazi and Allied forces. In the days and weeks after the D Day invasion, 156 Canadian prisoners of war who had been captured by the Nazis were shot and killed. The museum is a memorial to those events as well as a broader exploration of the causes, events, and aftermath of World War II. Exploring the museum and learning about these events so close to where they happened was a deeply moving experience and made the six decades separating those events from the present seem much shorter.
But that was nothing compared to the experience of seeing one of the D Day beaches, Omaha Beach, for myself. The sight of row after row of headstones, most in the form of crosses, some bearing Stars of David — 9,387 graves in all — was humbling. From the cemetery I made my way down the path to the beach itself. A high, green, foliage-covered bluff gently gave way to a wide sandy beach that was gently washed by the waters of the English Channel. It was a strikingly beautiful place, and it was incomprehensible that such grave, momentous events had ever taken place precisely in the spot.
After spending some all-too-brief moments trying to take in and comprehend that place and what happened there, our group moved on down the coast to Pointe du Hoc. It is a promontory about 30 meters (100 feet) high overlooking the English Channel and the surrounding beaches. Because of its advantageous position, the Nazis fortified the spot with concrete casements and pillboxes, and it, too, like the beaches around it, were subject to the Allied advance on D Day. However, unlike the surrounding beaches which have been largely restored to their natural beauty, Pointe du Hoc has been left largely as it remained after 6 June 1944. The ruins of the Nazi fortifications still scar the ground, encircled by razorwire; the surrounding land remains pockmarked with craters from bombs that fell that day over a half a century before my visit. If it was difficult to understand the events that had happened at Omaha Beach, here at Pointe du Hoc they were inescapable. Yet all around this reminder of the basest of human nature was the serene beauty of the surrounding landscape.4
It was an excursion that would remain with me for a long time — and I was very grateful that I had caught the bus just in the nick of time.