Sunday, June 7, 2015

European Adventure 2012: Omaha Beach

After going to Mass in Lisieux, we hopped in our rental car and made our way through Normandy to the coast of the English Channel so we could visit Omaha Beach.

Normandy is named after the "Normans" who were a group of Vikings who took control over this northern part of France around the turn of the first millennium.  One of the places we drove by on our way to Omaha Beach was the town of Bayeux where the famous Bayeux Tapestry is kept.  This tapestry was created to depict the legendary Battle of Hastings in 1066 where the Normans defeated the English--the last time anyone has successfully invaded and conquered England.
A segment of the Bayeux Tapestry 
On our drive we eventually saw a road sign for Omaha Beach.  It was pretty amazing to see a road sign for such an important landmark in our Nation's history--even if it was in another country!  This wasn't a road sign for a local state park like Mahoney State Park back home in Nebraska…this was for THE Omaha Beach!

As we got closer to Omaha Beach, we recognized that Normandy is very beautiful.  It was very green and the homes we drove by were very charming.  Eventually we arrived at the Normandy American Cemetery.  We processed through security there and walked through the visitors' center.  They had many interesting displays and artifacts from the invasion.  They had some actual paratrooper jump boots on display there.  It was neat to see the "real" things.  Throughout my military career, I've seen that style of boot worn by numerous people, but had never seen a pair of them that were from a real paratrooper--let alone one from WWII!  They also had an Army canteen and some Bangalore torpedoes which were used to blow up German obstacles.

After walking through the visitor center, we stepped outside onto a paved trail which led to the cemetery.  From there, we could see Omaha Beach.  Ironically, it was gorgeous.  Everything was so green on that crisp, sunny, late winter afternoon.  We could feel the wind off of the channel.  It was surreal to be standing where our servicemen had fought, conquered, and died.  

We kept walking till we saw the impressive American Normandy monument and the rows of thousands of crosses marking the final resting places of so many of my Nation's heroes.  The view was staggering…so much sacrifice for our freedoms.  Two American flags flew proudly high above them all.  We began to walk among the crosses and read some of the names:  Clifford Stafford from Kansas, Henry Tinker from New York, etc., etc….The cross of PFC Richard Atwood had a Rosary around it.  We even saw a cross dedicated to "A Comrade in Arms Known but to God."

After looking at the crosses, we decided to walk down to the beach itself.  A trail from the cemetary led down onto the beach.  As we walked down the small trail through foliage and trees, I thought about the brave soldiers who had scaled this deadly hillside in 1941.  I could see two empty German turrets on my left that must have rained devastation upon our troops upon their landing and advance.  We kept walking down the trail and eventually the soil under our feet had turned to sand…we had set foot on Omaha Beach.

Once we had walked through a small, sandy forest at the base of the hillside, we stepped out onto the open beach.  It was much bigger and more wide-open than I had ever imagined.  It was probably about a quarter of a mile from the hillside to the water!  It was a stark contrast to how it's portrayed in Saving Private Ryan.  I imagined how deadly this beach must have been…It was painful to imagine wave after wave of American soldiers getting chewed up by German machine gun fire and landmines as they steadily made the long trek to the hillside and to direct contact with the enemy.  On the beach, I could see the ghastly, hollow remains of German turrets lodged in the hillside still eerily guarding the beach.  As we walked along, we even saw the remains of German landing obstacles still stuck in the sand. 

View of the hillside at Omaha Beach from the sea.  American soldiers had to go a long way through open beach where they were easy targets for German gunners.

German turrets overlooking Omaha Beach

Peter sitting on a German landing obstacle on Omaha Beach

The wind from the sea blew across clear puddles on the beach and kept reminding us that it was still winter there.  Sarah, still experiencing the effects of pregnancy morning sickness, wasn't feeling very well from all the walking and so we decided to start making our way back up the hillside.  Peter ran around on the beach to stretch his little legs.  It was sobering to think of the thousands of men who had fallen where my little son was now running.  This beach was much different on June 6, 1944.

We made our way back up the hillside on a separate trail than the one we had come down on.  On the trail back up we stopped at two of the empty German cannon turrets to look inside.  The Nazis used to be…right…here.  The view of the beach was impeccable…these turrets were well-placed to stop an amphibious assault from the beach below.
In the back of one of the German turrets

View of Omaha Beach from one of the German turrets

On our way back up the hill, we walked by a monument to the Fifth Engineer Special Brigade and another to the U.S.'s 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed the "Big Red One").  Next to the latter, we saw the entrance to subterranean German barracks…a spider hole.  Fitting to have a monument to our fighting men standing over the remains of the enemy's living quarters!

Visiting Normandy was an incredible experience that I will never forget.  Thanks be to God for the sacrifices of thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops who broke into Hitler's "Fortress Europe" on that fateful day in Jun 1944, and in a little over a year ended the most destructive conflict in human history.

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