NORMANDY, FRANCE – Just behind the obelisk-shaped monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers at Utah Beach, a man stoops to apply a fresh coat of paint to a roped-off wall. It is one of the many subtle signs of the preparations being made for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. For the bucolic villages along the coast, June 6 also marks their liberation after four years of German occupation.
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To the citizens of Normandy, whose roots reach back more than a thousand years, the invasion has become as much a part of their identity as cathedrals, Camembert and calvados.
Reminders are everywhere – accidental ones like bullet holes in a metal fence and shrapnel pockets in a brick wall, as well as intentional ones like commemorative plaques, statues in nearly every town square and even the stained-glass windows of a church. Flags of the Allied nations flap alongside that of France, and locals insist that it’s not a show for tourists or just a display around the June anniversary.
“They’re grateful,” said Christophe Rault, a tour guide, war historian and resident of Normandy for 35 years.
Not to say there aren’t D-Day-themed trinkets and postcards, books and mugs, miniature model tanks and of course, plenty of T-shirts. Millions of visitors come to the region annually and tourism is a business, but it doesn’t feel like an industry. The tone is one of respect, reflecting relationships cultivated over more than half a century. Allied veterans of the war return frequently, said Rault, and several have been made honorary citizens of the towns they helped free.
“This is the last anniversary we will probably see veterans,” Rault pointed out. The teenage soldiers of 1944 are approaching their 90s now; By the 75th anniversary, few if any will be able to make the journey back. Which is why, Rault believes, it is so important for subsequent generations to make the trek.
“This kind of pilgrimage is to remember their sacrifice,” he said.
Medieval towns, 20th century history
The town of Bayeux, like many of Normandy’s medieval towns, is bisected by a canal and comprised of a network of squiggly cobblestone streets that open onto squares and a stately cathedral. A few weeks before June 6, it was plastered with billboards, posters and window dressings reminding residents of the impending anniversary; A digital clock above the tourist center counted down the days to D-Day.
Bayeux boasts the Museum of the Battle of Normandy, an impressive collection of narratives and artifacts recounting not just the events of June 6 but the subsequent three months of fighting it took to finally push the Germans out of the region. A collection of military vehicles occupies the large back room. Alongside them are descriptions of the perils of the famous Normandy hedgerows and the role of war correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway and Cornelius Ryan, who managed to capture the chaos of combat.
Angels in army fatigues
The day we visited Sainte-Mere-Eglise, 40 miles to the west of Bayeux, was market day. The town square was a maze of booths hawking everything from live chickens and fresh produce to cheap T-shirts and U.S. military paraphernalia. Strings of Allied flags crisscrossed the main street while a jackhammer at work hinted at what those streets might have sounded like at dawn on June 6.
When Private John Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division floated over the town, a mile off course, his parachute snagged on one of the church’s spires and there he hung, for two hours, feigning dead. Today, a mannequin hitched to a white parachute dangles over the church’s roof in tribute to Steele and his comrades – albeit on the wrong side of the building, so as to be more photogenic.
In a strikingly spiritual and poignant commemoration, the church on which that mannequin hangs features two large stained-glass windows that depict the heroism of the soldiers – angels in army fatigues – who liberated the town. In one, the Virgin Mary, cradling Jesus in her arms, hovers over two paratroopers. In another, the insignia of Allied military units surround Saint Michael.
Today, the beaches of Normandy look like any other stretch of coast: long, flat, sandy runways that butt up against imposing cliffs, or roll up over smooth, grassy dunes, or are abruptly cut off by rows of beach houses.
But the 80 miles of coastline welcoming visitors today belie the complicated embroidery that greeted Allied forces when they landed: stitched with barbed wire, studded with concrete tetrahedra, spiked with mine-bearing stakes – the artful deterrence of what the Germans called the Atlantic Wall, all in an attempt to foil an Allied landing on the beaches.
Now on Utah Beach, jet skis bounce along just off shore. A seaside museum juts over one of the dunes and at least three different monuments crowd the beach entrance. The salty air mixes with fresh paint.
Teddy Roosevelt III (son of the 26th U.S. president) led the assault on Utah Beach, one of the most successful landings that day. Nearby a brasserie called Le Roosevelt dishes out Niçoise salads in his honor. The bar area is tattooed with the signatures and messages of veterans. Mannequins in military attire lean against the bar with Budweiser bottles in hand, but you can order a D-Day beer to accompany your crepes - a Pilsner.
That interior is similar to that of Café Gondrée about an hour away - the two restaurants basically bookend the invasion beaches. Café Gondrée holds the distinction of being the first liberated home in France, owing to its location next to the famed Pegasus Bridge, which British troops took in the first minutes of D-Day.
Madame Gondrée was four at the time. She now lords over the restaurant’s red-and-white checkered tables with dignity and impatience. Inside are the usual postcards and pins, a letter from a British mother seeking information on her son, missing in action, and framed photos of Madame Gondrée with veterans and politicians. The day we visited, she added another one to her collection: Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, stopped by for lunch.
A new layer of skin
The most striking of the landing sites is Pointe du Hoc, a promontory shooting 100 feet out of the water. It was also the most crowded, with tour buses lined up like infantryman in the parking lot and regiments of French high-schoolers sprawling over the remains of German bunkers. The topography is reminiscent of a lunar landscape, peppered with bomb craters 20-foot wide and three stories deep. They are now covered in lush, green vegetation, like a new layer of skin grown over a scar.
Underscoring the United States’ continued investment in preserving the region’s history is a sleek new visitor center, built and managed by the American Monuments Battle Commission, an agency of the U.S. federal government. It opened in March.
If Utah Beach symbolized everything the Allies hoped would go right on D-Day, Omaha Beach, a.k.a. Bloody Omaha, epitomized all that could go wrong: The United States suffered an estimated 3,000 casualties on that beach, comparable to the total number of casualties at the three beaches to the north: Gold and Sword, where British troops landed, and Juno, ultimately conquered by the Canadians.
“I get torn up when I come back, to think about these boys who were 19 and 20 and 21 and what they did for my country,” said Richard Books of Oklahoma who was back in Normandy for his seventh of eighth visit. This time, he brought his nephew, Jared. They were with a small group at a monument to the soldiers of the First Infantry Division, above Omaha Beach.
“The fact that it’s the 70th anniversary isn’t as important as just being here,” Books said. “I think it heightens the fact that history disappears,” if you don’t revisit it, he explained.
The tide was out at Omaha Beach, revealing a broad swath of naked strand. A horse, with rider, galloped across. At one corner sits a modern sailing school; Only an occasional mound of metal suggests the slaughter this sand once witnessed.
A few weeks ahead of the anniversary, workers were scrubbing down the white, marble crosses and Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery, 172 acres of carefully manicured grounds overlooking Omaha Beach. A university band from Mississippi, on a 10-day tour through the region, played a melancholy requiem in front of the reflecting pool. When they finished, the sound of leaf blowers took over.
The cemetery was officially established in 1956 butsits on the site of the first temporary burial ground, set up on June 8, 1944. It is the final resting place for 9,387 service members – mostly men but a few women too.
Pat and Barbara McBee were visiting from Fort Worth, Texas. Both are in their late 70s and on their first trip to Normandy. “As we were getting older, we needed to see things we wanted to see,” said Pat, when asked why they finally chose to come.
Barbara’s father was an infantryman who “walked all the way to Berlin” and suffered severe frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge. Two uncles fought in Normandy as well.
“I was lucky,” she said. “My dad and both my uncles came back but a lot of people’s dads didn’t come back.” Following the war, her father refused to return to France. “He didn’t talk much” about his experience, she said.
“My dad was angry and frustrated a lot,” she continued. “I think he felt that he lost a lot of his youth.”
Known but to God
“I found one,” said a young woman elsewhere on the lawn to her husband, who was wandering nearby. Then she stuck an American flag in front of a cross for an unknown soldier, inscribed: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms, known but to God.”
The soldiers of the British Commonwealth were, according to tradition, buried in the country where they fell. American families were given a choice of repatriating the bodies of loved ones, and approximately 61 percent chose to do so. That percentage is even higher among Jewish soldiers, largely because of the tradition of being buried in a Jewish cemetery. (A soldier’s religion was indicated by an engraved initial on his dog tag: C for Catholic, P for Protestant, H or J for Hebrew or Jew, nothing for atheist.)
At the center of the American cemetery is a small, simple chapel with a few short, wooden pews and an altar where a statue of the Ten Commandments is propped. Etched into the glass window behind it is a Star of David, overlaid with a dove, a remarkably balanced representation – at least of two religions.
With its precise symmetry, spatial architecture and crisp landscaping, the American cemetery is a model of grand, austere respect. Many of the other cemeteries that crop up around the battle beaches are much more intimate, and personal. At the British cemetery near Sword Beach, bushels of bright flowers illuminate the rows of tombstones. Engraved on each is a short phrase chosen by the family:
“A voice we loved is stilled, a place is vacant in our home which can never be filled,” reads the grave of R.C. Maslin, who died June 6, 1944, at age 19.
The last living veterans
The Bayeux war cemetery, officially British, is also home to the graves of fallen soldiers from France, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Italy, what was then Czechoslovakia and the U.S.S.R. - and includes two Muslim graves. Surprisingly, one corner is home to German graves, a powerful and poignant statement on the equal value of a lost life.
Another group of young teenagers wove through the tombstones in Bayeux, students at an American school in London on an annual whirlwind World War II tour. Josh, age 14, lingered by one of the few Jewish graves.
“I always thought more about the Holocaust,” he said, explaining his understanding of the war before this trip. His grandfather left Berlin a year before Kristallnacht and settled in Colombia. “But it’s bigger than I realized,” he said of World War II. “It changed my perspective."
History always looks different, feels bigger, and becomes more real when you stand on it. Few sites of such modern historical importance are as accessible and well contextualized as the 80 mile-long museum that is modern-day Normandy. And the respect still paid to those events by current inhabitants makes them feel that much more alive.
The Merville Battery is probably the Normandy site that most closely resembles a mini-amusement park. The site of an important, and daring, British attack, the battery is comprised of grassy mounds hiding dark concrete compounds from which Germans would fire at Allied planes. Today, a multimedia show recreates the D-Day attack on the battery in one bunker, complete with raid sirens, sputtering machine guns, soldiers barking in German and flashing lights mixed with smoke. Another presentation gives visitors a cockpit view from a glider plane. Across a fence, under the wing of a C-47 warplane that flew in D-Day and was rescued seven years ago from an airfield in Sarajevo, horses graze.
The port city of Calais lies 200 miles north of Normandy, at the narrowest point of the English Channel, where the Germans were sure the Allied invasion would take place. Hence, it boasts some of their strongest defenses. The Todt Battery, named after the German engineer responsible for constructing much of the Atlantic Wall, looks like a great concrete cake with a slice removed (that wedge is where guns would protrude, aimed at England). Inside, the museum houses an extensive collection of German military vehicles, uniforms and weapons. One section proudly displays every pistol, rifle, revolver, semi-automatic and other firearm used in the war. It’s chilling. But not as much as the Krupp K5 preserved next to the battery, with it’s 71-foot barrel and 40-mile range. England is only 22 miles away.
Between Calais and Lille, one of France’s largest cities, located near the Belgian border, is a string of small towns with red roofs and gardens, connected by a quilt of green fields. Just outside one of them is an intricate complex with more than four miles of tunnels and laboratories dug into the side of a mountain and capped with a concrete dome 17-feet thick. It’s called La Coupole and it was the site of some of the most innovative rocket construction conducted by the Germans in World War II. The ultimate goal: V2 rockets zooming toward London. Today, the site is a planetarium and a museum. The latter is a surprisingly robust and nuanced investigation of the site, giving context to occupied France, recognizing the Jewish labor exploited in the site’s construction, acknowledging the Holocaust and taking a critical look at America’s post-war recruitment of Nazi scientists to further its own space program.