By Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Members: North American Travel Journalists Association
American Society of Journalists and Authors
Crossing the English Channel from Britain to France on a normal day is an experience. On a day where there are slight swells in the water that will gently rock your boat and the air is misty, obscuring anything more than a mile away can bring goose bumps to even the most jaded traveler.
This June 6 celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the opening of Fortress Europe that led to the ultimate defeat of the brutal Nazi invasion and their ultimate capitulation, albeit too late to save the lives of up to 70 million people.
That figure includes all those killed, including military personnel.
The Holocaust killed 6 million Jews and about 5 million Christians, Gypsies, homosexuals and others the Super Race deemed unfit to live.
As your ship slogs through the water heading for France and the mist gently rolls over the deck, even the most jaded can’t help but feel the goose bumps rising. If you look hard enough, force your eyes to see through the droplets of water forming the mist, you can see the thousands of allied ships carrying troops who are about to land on the beaches of Normandy.
Bloodied sands that became known as Omaha and Utah Beaches are today silent memorials to the scores who died and were critically wounded there. On Omaha Beach the 1st and 29th Divisions were tasked with storming the beach and sustained some 2,000 casualties.
Today the beaches are a tourist destination and a vacation spot for French and Europeans seeking sun, white sand and calm waters. There are virtually no traces of the violence that took place there seven decades ago except for monuments erected by the grateful French.
The nearby American cemeteries are not only looked after by the French, but on holidays and special days, your French school children visit the cemeteries and place small American flags on every single one of the thousands of graves. Some have even personally adopted an American buried there are continue to visit even through adulthood, bringing their own children to pay homage.
The American cemetery at St. Laurent-sue-Mer overlooks Omaha Beach. Of the 23. ,000 American military casualties buried there, only some 9,000 remain with 14,000 repatriated to the United States. Even with modern methods there are still more than 300 who remain unidentified. As well there is a garden that commemorates the 1,500 who remain missing in action.
Interestingly the nearby German cemetery is only a fractio of the size of the American burial ground but it holds almost 22,000 bodies.
An interesting site that should not be missed and not far off is the German stronghold at Pont du Hoc, built on what they through was an impregnable bluff overlooking the Channel and in sight of both Omaha and Utah Beaches.
They never counted on the early version of American Special Forces, the Second Ranger Battalion.
These brave men clambered up the sheer wall of a 100-foot cliff, an action the Germans never even considered. The site has been peserved as it look on De-Day.
Today Americans in ever decreasing numbers visit the beaches and the cemeteries. Descendants of the men killed in action and buried there have grown further and further away. Most parents of those men are no longer alive and siblings have either died or are too old and infirm to make the trip.
In years past many Normandy survivors would bring children and grandchildren to see the sites and remember comrades who did not make it home. The movie, “Saving Private Ryan” is a perfect example.
More tourists pass through the rows of crosses and Stars of David, honoring men they never knew and have no connection to. No connection, except that is, their freedom today paid for with the blood of those who remain. The cemeteries are considered American soil in France, much the same as an embassy is the soil of that nation.
Visitors often take little vials of sand from the beaches to remember June 6, 1944, D-Day and the men who gave all for them to live in freedom.