Probably the highlight of the trip was our stops in the area in and around Normandy France. We took three days to explore this region and I could have spent another week here. I will try to include some history in this blog and some pics that tell a story, but the story is probably too big to include in one blog.
As many of you know, D-Day took place on June 6, 1944. The day before, Phase I of the attack took place by American and British bombers bombing Northern France.
This is the actual Pegasus Bridge that has been restored at a museum like 100 yards away from the place it was in WWII. It is located on the eastern most flank of the D-Day attack, near the beaches taken by the British. The bridge was vitally important. So here is what happened. The bridge was to be taken by British soldiers flown into the area by gliders:
Now, you know that gliders have no lights or engines. So, these gliders were being tugged by other planes and then, 8 miles off the coast of France, these gliders detached from there tug plans. They began to fly into their targets. Again, no engines and no lights on their target. The time is about 12:30 AM on June 6th.
The gliders came into the coast, went past the bridge, made a hard right turn, then landed. In the picture below, you will see the bridge, and the stone marker marks the place the first glider landed:
150 FEET AWAY!!!!
Here is a pic of both the spot of the first and the second glider’s landing spots. The statue is one of the pilot of the first British glider:
The British took the bridge in 10 minutes because of the surprise (no sound with gliders). They took the Germans by complete surprise. The battles that followed to hold on to it were fierce. There is some shrapnel damage still left on the bridge:
Mark was the British guy that runs this museum and he was fantastic. He drew us all in and got us caught up in this story so much that I know I will never forget it. We had a WWII Veteran in our group too – Jim Calvert (more on him later) – and Mark presented him with a coin commemorating his service and visit to Pegasus Bridge. It was so cool. Thanks Mark.
American paratroopers did not have as good of luck. There was the many mis-drops all around. There is the most famous story of the little town of St. Mere Eglise, where one American paratrooper got stuck on a church steeple. He is still there today (or at least a replica of him):
The church that he is stuck replaced its stained glass windows with these. Look close at what is falling on the sides of the window:
I am not sure what I think of this. I like the idea of honoring soldiers, but I am not sure if a place that also believes in the Ten Commandments (Thou Shalt Not Kill) should be glorifying war either. Confusing.
Now it was time to head to the beaches. Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches were taken by the British and the Canadians much faster than planned. So was Utah Beach which was taken by the Americans under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. Here is what they saw as the came ashore (click on any of these pics for a larger version):
Utah Beach was the furthermost West of the beaches, but when they landed, the Americans were not where they were supposed to be. TR JR decided that was fine, as long as they were fighting. The famous quote he was supposed to have said was “We Will Start Our War Here.” They did, and took the beach in about 2 hours. TR JR died in July of 1944 due to a heart attack. He was the oldest soldier part of the DDay invasion at 57 years old.
Rudolph was our French Tour Guide through the museum at Utah Beach. His emotion betrayed his voice when he talked of individual Americans who were killed on Utah. It blew me away that a young French guy had this much gratitude – still – towards the Americans. But this was the norm in the entire Normandy area. There were American flags every where and it seemed like every one loved Americans. They understood and understand the stakes and the risks involved.
Here is look at the beach from the shore:
Down the shore a little to the east is a place called Point du Hoc. This was a flat area, high on some cliffs, which housed Nazi guns that could hit both Utah and Omaha beaches. The Americans decided it had to be taken and sent the Army Rangers to do the job. I had heard of this story, but when I finally visited this place, I was amazed that this was even thought possible, let alone, actually accomplished.
Here is as close as I could get to looking down the cliffs – imagine the Rangers coming up them:
There is a memorial here too to the soldiers who accomplished this incredible feat. It is shaped after one of the grappling hooks used by the Rangers to scale the cliffs:
President Reagan gave a great speech about these men on the 40th Anniversary of DDay in 1984. Watch it here if you want:
All around Point du Hoc are what was left of that day – and they let you explore it all – which, of course, I did:
There are craters left from American bombs:
Pill boxes left by the Nazis:
And like I said, I explored them all:
But then it was time to visit Omaha Beach. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong on Omaha Beach. This is the beach that the movie “Saving Private Ryan” depicts in the first 20 minutes. This was the roughest and toughest and bloodiest battle on DDay. Here is what the soldiers saw coming into the beach (ignore the buildings):
If you remember your history, the Americans used a new kind of landing craft called the Higgins boat. We saw one at the museum at Utah Beach:
Once on the beach, they got the hills and bluffs they had to climb. Instead of going up the paths and face heavy enemy fire, they went up where there was brush and no clear way up – a place like this:
They did finally make it, but after heavy losses. Those lost are buried on a bluff overlooking Omaha beach. There are many stories that could and should be told about this cemetery I am sure, but I think I will just let some pictures speak for themselves:
Down on the beach, we found this pic in the sea wall:
And it was then I began to think about all these people who did something incredible here. In my class, I talk about the Spectrum of Human Behavior. Every act we take can be put on this spectrum – from Evil to Bad to Good to Saintly. Most of things we do in our lives hover around the middle – between good and bad. We don’t usually have the opportunities to do saintly acts and hopefully don’t lack morals and ethics enough to evil things.
But in war, almost everything you do is either evil or saintly. Either you are killing people or saving people. There is not much in between. Could we consider the efforts of these young men who were part of the DDay invasion as doing something saintly? Could the bravery and courage they had in an effort to rid the world of the likes of the Nazis be saintly? You can answer that on your own – but I know MY answer.
As our time on Omaha Beach came to an end, I took off my shoes and socks and went walking in the surf. I grabbed a handful of sand and put in in a ziplock bag to take home with me. And I tried to conceive the amount of effort and will power and saintliness that could move someone to do so much for so many that he had never met. It is beyond my understanding and comprehension.
At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, Private Ryan asks his wife to tell him he has lived a good life. He wants to know that what he has done with his LIFE was worth the DEATHS of those that saved him. Shouldn’t we ask the same question? Are the lives we LIVE today, worth the DEATH of those who protect for us? This can sometimes leave us with an answer we don’t like. But luckily, we have the time to do something about it.