Monday, June 5, 2017

Normandy: World War II Tour, Part Deux

German bunker; now ours.
This World War II-themed tour connected England (Portsmouth) with France (Caen) with a seven-hour ferry cruise. Emanating from Cape May as I do, I didn't think the ferry cruise would be a highlight. Then I realized that this route over the English Channel was very similar to the route that the Allied forces took on D-Day 73 years ago TODAY! That realization cast a solemn note onto the cruise, but that shouldn't infer that the trip wasn't fun. It was! It was windy on deck, and very refreshing, and the enormous ferry was fun to explore.

We dined aboard ship, and the part of this meal I remember best was the eclair I had for dessert which had chocolate cream inside. We arrived in France rather late, so headed straight for our hotel in Caen, a city in Normandy.

The flags of the Allies outside the Caen Memorial
Bright and early the next day, we were off to the Caen Memorial. This huge modern structure featured a museum-like exhibit of artifacts from the Normandy region.

Book casualty of war
 Let me set the Normandy scene: Normandy is the region, and the beaches on which the Allied forces came ashore were Utah (American troops), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British and some Canadian). Each of these beach areas is a village with a French name known to the locals. Caen is a moderately-sized city which the Allied forces were heading for after taking the beaches. Although these battles were extremely bloody, the Allies did manage to reclaim the areas from the Germans as they made their way inland to Paris and points beyond.

At the Caen Memorial, we watched a compelling movie about D-Day and the events following. I don't remember how long the movie was, and I can't even estimate the time because I was so captivated by it. Somehow, the film-makers were able to tell this story without words. There were pictures and video clips, but no words. Sure this was a handy device to use for multilingual visitors, but honestly, the wordless movie was SO GOOD. It prepared me for the sites I would see next.

We jumped on our bus with a local guide named Mario who would tell us all about the area, D-Day, and the events following. Our first stop was Point du Hoc, a piece of land that juts out into the English Channel. Point du Hoc is a promontory, meaning that it ends with cliffs that fall into the channel. When the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group arrived, they had to scale those cliffs to get to the Germans hiding out in pillboxes, bunkers, and hidey-holes.

This is a 'pillbox' bunker
Only one or two guys would fit in this hidey-hole.
 We got to tour and inspect those concrete ruins, climbing on, in, and down into to see Point du Hoc from the perspective of the Germans. These concrete ruins were fascinating, but the craters really grabbed my attention. Point du Hoc was assaulted by explosives from Allied aircraft, but also from ships at sea. Those very strong explosives made craters that can still be seen today, 73 years later. The round craters were made by bombs dropped by aircraft, but the oblong or oval craters were made by missiles launched from ships. their flight would make an arc and then when they hit they would push the earth in front of them resulting in deep, oblong craters. They are huge!

HUGE craters!
Back on the bus, we toured through some cute French seaside towns sprinkled with tanks, vehicles, and other war-like artifacts. Having recently read through the Normandy chapter of Donald Miller's The Story of World War II, I was aware of the carnage at Omaha Beach 73 years ago. The vicious battle was here between the Americans and Germans, thousands of guys died, and dead bodies were lined up on the beach for retrieval. Yet, people were frolicking, and swimming, and playing in the sand as if it were any other beach. I felt the same kind of internal schism that I felt on the ferry. I don't resent the beach-goers, but I could never enjoy a relaxing day in the sand there as I do at home...knowing what I know. It was a moving thing to see this beach site, so similar to my own favorite beach in New Jersey, but not exactly.

Omaha Beach
Finally, we arrived at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. The photographs you've seen of this place are no substitute for being there. It is huge. Hundreds and hundreds of crosses and stars of David mark the graves of Americans who lost their lives here 73 years ago.

The whole time we were there, I could hear the waves of the English Channel crashing--I hadn't realized that this cemetery was so close to the water. As sad as it was, it was beautiful, too. There's a chapel in the middle and a large memorial near the entrance surrounded by a wall in which the names of MIA soldiers and sailors are engraved. Now and then there would be a name marked with a brass rosette--this would be a person whose remains were found later. This site effectively illustrates the magnitude of those Normandy battles.
The cemetery chapel

The cemetery memorial
Having no relatives here that I know of, I went in search of the Roosevelt brothers that our tour guide Mario told us about. I remember learning their stories on a documentary years ago. Quentin Roosevelt was President Roosevelt's youngest son, and he died in France during World War I (1918). His family was given special dispensation (eventually) to have Quentin's remains exhumed and re-buried here next to his brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He died at Normandy during the World War II battles on July 12, 1944. His grave marker is distinctive with its gold Medal of Honor designation. Mario explained that these would be easy to find as they sat at the edge of the second block of graves on the English Channel side of the huge cemetery. I walked right to them, and when I was there, a rope was tied around the area to keep people off, perhaps to let the grass get started growing in the spring.

The Roosevelt Brothers, Quentin and Theodore, Jr.
 It was a long day exploring the emotional sites of Normandy. I was just saying to a friend that I feel that I lived through World War II since I had such a strong connection to my parents who did. Seeing these parts of Normandy was meaningful to me and got me thinking of all I knew from them and all I've learned recently in preparation for this trip. It was a special day and was topped off by a lovely dinner in Caen, on a pedestrian street full of quaint restaurants and European beauty. This is what we fought for.

Caen street: Dinner!
Could this street be prettier?
Caen menu
Caen dessert

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