I always thought I was such a hotshot for taking Advanced Placement American History courses in high school, and I thought I knew so much more than everyone else because of it. Yesterday I visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in the small coastal town of Colleville-sur-Mer in France, and I felt like the furthest thing from a hotshot. In fact, I was humbled in realizing everything I’d read in textbooks paled to translucence in comparison to seeing and hearing how history was really made.
The cemetery and memorial were built on land that France has granted use of in perpetuity…forever…”a permanent burial ground without charge or taxation” to honor the American soldiers who lost their lives liberating France from Nazi German forces. The cemetery sits just above Omaha Beach, one of five beaches that British and Canadian forces landed on along the Normandy coastline on D-Day. If this all sounds familiar to you, as it did to me, then we’ve just touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: All we ask…was enough…soil in which to bury our gallant dead.” General Mark W. Clark
This quote among so many others graced the walls at the site, but was placed at the entrance to the actual cemetery. It wasn’t until the end of the tour that I understood its meaning and significance. Close to 14,000 American families had chosen to have their loved ones brought back to the U.S. for burial, and more than 9,000 had made the ultimate decision to have their fallen soldiers buried in France. I stood in awe, of those families and their heartbreak as I took this photo.
I took away with me the reality, in context and photos below, of the 14 graves belonging to soldiers of Jewish faith…of the more than 300 soldiers whose bodies were buried here without identities, and “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God” inscribed on their graves…of the more than 1,500 names inscribed on the walls of The Garden of the Missing, honoring those missing in action whose identities were confirmed yet no bodies to bury along with.
Everywhere I turned there were statues and flags and reminders of what was lost so long ago. And then I turned around and was reminded of what could be found once again, the sight of my little Noah, so innocently and vibrantly crawling upon the lawn…the promise of a better future thanks to the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for good and who continue to do so today.
I promised myself to be sure to show this photo to Noah when he’s old enough to understand just how sacred the ground was, that he was sitting on yesterday.
P.S. Before we arrived at the Normandy American Ceremony and Memorial we visited the Arromanches D-Day Museum in the town of Arromanches-les-Bains, off Gold Beach where British forces had once landed. Not only were we disappointed, but we felt cheated of our entrance fee as their two gift shops took up most of the space in the museum. I’d recommend researching museums thoroughly before adding them to your itinerary.