My guide from the Mémorial de Caen Museum, Rosine Champion, leaned against a low seawall and held up photos of the giant rolls of barbed wire and semi-submerged iron hedgehogs that Germans installed on Omaha Beach during World War II to thwart potential invasions. Shivering in the blustery October winds, I pulled my army-green sweatshirt up around my ears and gazed over the historic strip of sand. Children played tag with the undulating tide and couples strolled hand-in hand. In the distance, a few tourists clustered around “Les Braves,” a remarkable sculpture by artist Anilore Ban that sweeps its balletic stainless steel wings skyward in commemoration of the more than 4,000 Allied troops who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1944.
“It’s hard to believe that this was a site of such carnage,” I remarked.
Champion pointed to an unassuming cottage on the opposite side of the road, tucked between sand dunes crowned with dense vegetation. “That’s the only house on Omaha Beach that survived the Normandy invasion,” she explained.” Gradually, families rebuilt and these days Omaha Beach is a very popular vacation spot with the French.”
I looked around, but saw none of the signs of a typical seaside resort town. “I don’t see any hotels or restaurants or tacky gift shops.”
“We have a saying in France,” Champion replied. “We don’t profit on the backs of the dead.”
I broke out in goosebumps. Out of respect for the role it played in World War II, Omaha Beach has intentionally not been commercialized. It was one of many astonishing things I would learn during my half-day tour of the Normandy beaches. Two weeks earlier I had arrived in Paris, expecting ill treatment, as I’d always heard that the French are not particularly fond of Americans. Quite the opposite, I’d been treated with nothing but genuine kindness, which I found mystifying in light of the fact that American bombs had decimated many of the French coastal towns during the war. I pressed this point with Champion: “I understand that bombers sent to destroy bridges and railroads during the Normandy invasion missed their mark, instead destroying the nearby town of Caen. How do the French feel about that?”
“We know you had no choice. My grandfather says if you did not do this we would be speaking German today.”
The sense of incongruity grew stronger with each site we visited. At Pointe de Hoc I followed meandering trails through lush grass to a series of abandoned concrete bunkers that had contained 155 mm canons. On D-Day, the 2nd Ranger battalion scaled the 98-foot high cliffs using using rope ladders and grappling hooks while under heavy fire, suffering 60% casualties during the initial assault and the following two days. Yet on the day I visited, it was a picture of serenity; turquoise waters lapped the rocky cliffs and a fishing boat puttered by just offshore.
At Utah Beach I explored the dark inner recesses of German casemates, where enormous anti-tank artillery guns were quietly rusting away. Just beyond Gold Beach I followed a clifftop trail past a bomb crater for a view of the town of Arromanches and its pretty little bay, still ringed by Mulberry harbors, artificial docks set into deep water to facilitate offloading the thousands of troops and tons of equipment needed to support the Allied invasion.
Our final stop was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. On a hilltop overlooking Omaha Beach, 9,387 white marble crosses marked the graves of American soldiers who were killed during the D-Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy. Some crosses were engraved with the names of soldiers but many simply carried the inscription: “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God.” Interspersed among the rivers of crosses were a handful topped by the Star of David. Considering the horrors of the Holocaust, the mingling of christian and Jewish graves maybe the most appropriate memorial of all. I wandered up and down the perfectly manicured rows, thinking about my father, who was a lower-ball gunner in a B-17 bomber during World War II. It was one of the most dangerous places in a bomber but Dad was one of the lucky ones – he made it home. How I wished he could have been there with me, but at 87-years old he says his traveling days are over. So I did the next best thing. I stood in the center of the cemetery, looked over the sea of crosses to the steely gray ocean, and silently paid my respects – for both of us.