We have arrived at the grand finale of the Europe 2012 stories. This series is going out with a bang and a very special story about one of the most memorable experiences I had overseas.
While staying in Paris, I really wanted to take a day trip into Normandy to visit the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. I had originally planned to be in Paris for a week, and during that time I had already taken two trips into the area. The first was a visit to the D-Day Museum in Caen. On the second trip I went to the town of Bayeux with the intention of taking the bus to Omaha Beach from there, however I had arrived too late in the day to be able to take a round trip to and from the beach. It seemed like I had missed my chance, but to make the most of the situation I spent the rest of my time in Bayeux checking out the town and even seeing the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Coming back to Paris, I was feeling bummed about not getting to Omaha. However, on the Friday I was supposed to leave Paris, the train I wanted to be on to get to San Sebastian, Spain, was booked up, and the next available one going there was not until Sunday, so I suddenly had two more days in Paris. I had one last chance to get to Omaha, and I was not going to miss it.
It is a two hour train ride from Paris to Caen, a town in about the center of Normandy. From there you stay on the train and ride another twenty minutes to reach Bayeux, a town in the Normandy countryside. Because the bus station where you get on the bus that goes to Omaha Beach is right next to the train station some people do not explore Bayeux itself, but I would highly recommend at the very least taking a walk through this charming town. Bayeux only has two real tourist attractions, the Bayeux Tapestry and the town’s main church, but the appeal of Bayeux is the feel of the town and the experience of just walking it’s calm streets. Sitting beside an old waterwheel and listening to the flow of the stream as the wheel slowly turns was a great respite after many days of full-speed tourism in Paris. Bayeux is what I call a “sanctuary city”, where one goes not so much for sightseeing, but to take a break from the tourist routine (the other two notable towns in this category from my trip were San Sebastian and Halstatt). Below are a few photos of Bayeux that I took:
From my previous trip to Bayeux, I had the exact train and bus timetables to make sure everything worked out. About 40 minutes after I arrived in Bayeux, the bus to Omaha Beach departed. The bus driver did not speak English, however he understood me when I told him where I was going. In my clearest voice I said “American Cemetery.” He nodded his head, told me the fare and everything was set from there. For about 25 minutes the bus worked it’s way north, through the Normandy countryside and the small towns in it. I spent the whole bus ride staring out the window as the scenery passed by. About half way there small drops of water started to land and streak across the window.
When the bus reached the entrance to the American Cemetery, the bus driver called out the stop and I got off. Before me stood the gate.
As I walked through the gate and past the parking lot it started to rain, hard. I didn’t know where I was going. Two paths extended out through the trees and I couldn’t quite see where they went. One was labeled the path to the visitor center, which I decided to go to later. Instead, I went down the path to the memorial and cemetery.
There was hardly any one around as I approached the memorial. The tour buses had not yet shown up, and the heavy rain seemed to be keeping people away. At the memorial a few people were keeping dry underneath one of the overhangs and I joined them to sit out the rain. The cemetery was only about 100 feet away, but with the rain it seemed farther. On the wall was a large map of Normandy marking the invasion sites and routes traveled by the Allied and Axis forces. I stared at it for a few minutes, having nothing better to do, but then the other people nearby left, heading back towards the parking lot. Another minute passed while I considered what to do, but then, when I noticed the rain was slowing down, I resolved to see what I came for and I stepped out into the open.
As I walked into the rows of graves, the size of the cemetery became apparent. 9,387 people are buried there. Most of them died during the invasion or in the months following, though there are some from earlier or later dates. While I had seen pictures of it prior to arrival, I did not quite appreciate how many rows of graves there were until I saw it for myself.
Except for the two or three other people wandering the cemetery it felt like I was the only one there. Walking the rows of gravestone, I started reading the names as I passed by, as if by the mere act of reading their name I was somehow doing their memory justice. These were men I had never seen or heard of before, and yet I strangely felt as if I knew them. The ones that really stood out to me, though, were the unknowns. Whenever I came to one of those I paused for a second. To be dead is one thing. To be dead and no one knowing who you are is another. The sun started to break through the clouds.
Having spent an hour wandering the graveyard, I decided go down to the beach. Walking along a path familiar to anyone whose seen the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, I came to the stairs that descended the bluffs to the beach. After taking in the view, I started making my way down.
Coming out of the shrubs and vegetation, the beach spread out before me. To the west was Point du Hoc, where the Army Rangers scaled the cliffs, and in the distance to the east would have been the British and Canadian landing zones. The sea was gentle with only small waves and a light breeze was blowing. Nothing about that calm and peaceful place would have made you guess it was once a war zone. Nearly 70 years have wiped away almost all trances of what happened there in 1944. I did come across the remains what I’m guessing was a bunker, but other than that there was nothing on the beach from back then. Today families stroll the beach, people walk their dogs, and the occasional jogger passes by.
At about 2:00pm my time was up and I started making my way back to the entrance of the cemetery to catch the bus back to Bayeux. The tour buses had now arrived and more and more people were coming into the cemetery. The sun was shining and the place seemed much more pleasant (for lack of a better term) than the gray, wet and cold morning when I had walked the grounds. And yet, looking back I don’t think I would have had it any other way. A place like that is not for fun or curious spectacle, but for somber reflection on the sacrifice that was demanded of these men. May that sacrifice never be forgotten.