Homage at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

After 14 hours of travel, including a nerve-wracking 3 hour drive to the Paris airport that usually requires 45 minutes, I’m home. My mind and heart, however, are still in France. Planning and leading this tour with my travel cohort, Joyce, exceeded all expectations. There’s much to share.

First, I have to begin on the Normandy coast, where a beloved part of America lies buried just a short distance from the pounding surf.

The updated column below was written for The Greenville News and GreenvilleOnline.com (used with permission) in November 2011, just before Veteran’s Day. It garnered more response than any column previously printed. Here, I’ve illustrated it with photos from last week’s visit, as well as those made in 2011.

Remembering an American Cemetery in France

It was a foggy March morning when I visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer, France, with a tour group earlier this year. As we left the visitor center, the swirling mist hushed us into a profound silence, so only the sound of footsteps marked our progress towards the burial ground.

Truncated trees represent lives cut short. (2011)

Truncated trees represent lives cut short. (2011)

For some, the visit to Normandy was a long-held dream to honor a family member or an opportunity to examine history, up close and personal. For me, it was the least anticipated sojourn of a two-week tour that would take me to more lively places, such as Paris and Nice.

My reticence was not from disinterest, or disrespect, but because of a wary regard for my own unsettled feelings. Though I can’t claim first-hand experience, I know about life in the military and the costs of war because of my father, Al, who died in Vietnam in 1968.

I don’t watch movies like Saving Private Ryan, which features the Normandy American Cemetery in its opening sequence, or graphic films of any sort. And visiting battlefield sites and war memorials is painful for me.

I remember, however, visiting Arlington National Cemetery many times as a child when my father was stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital and have long recognized the comfort and solace of a carefully made and cultivated memorial park.

Gardens in all forms, but especially memorial ones, are a representation of Paradise on Earth. In Normandy, where more than a million visitors travel each year, the juxtaposition of beauty, faith, patriotism, and sorrow is especially poignant.

Situated on 172.5 acres on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel, the cemetery is an oasis of emerald green lawn circled and interspersed with towering hardwood and evergreen trees. On clear days, you can stand at an overlook and see the sand dunes that American soldiers struggled to climb on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Overlooking Omaha Beach.  (2013)

Overlooking Omaha Beach. (2013)

Omaha Beach (2013, by Tim St.Clair)

Omaha Beach (2013, by Tim St.Clair)

In March, however, with the cemetery shrouded in an other-worldly mist, my attention was claimed by the perfectly aligned white marble crosses, many in the standard Latin form and some representing the Star of David.

Normandy American Cemetery (2011)

Normandy American Cemetery (2011)

Star of David among Latin crosses. (2013)

Star of David among Latin crosses. (2013)

Of the 9,397 interred at this cemetery in Normandy, 4 are women, and 307 bear the inscription of the Unknown Soldier: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” There are also, side by side, 33 pairs of brothers, and a father and son.

As I moved into the cemetery, the first structure to catch my eye was a semi-circular colonnade at the east end of the park with two opposing alcoves on either side of the memorial’s centerpiece, a 22-foot tall bronze statue entitled Spirit of American Youth, which represents the soul of American soldiers rising from the waves on D-Day.

Memorial (2013)

Memorial (2013)

Overlooking the reflecting pool and chapel.  (2013)

Overlooking the reflecting pool and chapel. (2013)

Garden of  the Missing (2011)

Garden of the Missing (2011)

In front of this imposing structure a reflecting pool stretches west towards a marble chapel which stands in the center of the cemetery. Behind the colonnade, a long, curved wall in the Garden of the Missing lists the names of 1,557 men whose remains were never found.

In my time there, visitors ambled slowly among the graves. There were few sounds, except for whispers, and the wind and the surf from the nearby coast. The encircling evergreens provided a feeling of security and serenity to the emotionally charged space. Flowers, in large sweeps of heather under the trees and small bouquets at the base of some headstones, added a welcome familiarity.

The beautifully tended grounds offer comfort. (2011)

The beautifully tended grounds offer comfort. (2011)

Visitors (2013)

Visitors (2013)

In the end, my visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was the most meaningful and memorable part of my trip to France. I’m glad I had a chance to honor those who died on foreign soil defending freedom, as well as to hold my own father close, in thought, once more.

On Veterans Day, and every day, bless soldiers who’ve given the final measure by remembering. Even more importantly, take time to thank our living Veterans for their past service and our active soldiers for their continuing contribution to our liberty and national security. They, too, know sacrifice and have done us proud.

Inscription at the base of The Spirit of American Youth: MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF THE COMING OF THE LORD.  (2013)

Inscription at the base of The Spirit of American Youth: MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF THE COMING OF THE LORD. (2013)

15 thoughts on “Homage at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

  1. Pam

    Marian, Beautifully expressed and photographed.
    The anniversary of my own military-lifer Dad’s passing is Flag Day, which was just last Friday. He began his Army career as a young man sent to France during WWII, served in Japan during part of the Korean War, and ended his long career as a Special Forces early advisor in Vietnam, probably leaving there about the time of your Father’s deployment. Though he wanted to go, my Daddy never got to see the memorial at Normandy. Thank you for sharing your reflections with your readers, who, like my Dad may not have had the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to honor such sacrifice.

    Reply
  2. Joyce Moore

    Your thoughts and reflections are as beautiful and meaningful as this place is. The sacrifice of others for us is so heartfelt here. .
    Joie.

    Reply
  3. Pauline

    Such a thought provoking post Marian, you wrote so beautifully. Where we are in the UK on the south west coast, some of your soldiers left from the beaches here and now there are memorials to the ones who never returned, to remind us of the sacrifice that was paid for us all.

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Pauline–I’ve visited one of those memorials at Trebah on the Helford River. Cornwall is exceptionally beautiful and I hope to tour there again some day. I’ll be in Southern England to lead a group of gardeners in September, but no further west than Hampshire. I’ve seen images of the Bayeux War Cemetery, with its pink roses planted between gravestones; it too is a lovely memorial.

      Reply
  4. Gayle Goetze

    I had the honor of visiting this site in 1985. My Father, who was in the infantry landing here on D-Day planned a visit back the year he passed, 1998, and unfortunately, never made. I remember the people in the nearby towns as being lovely and kind. My Father was always reluctant to talk about his time here, but I convinced him to write his memoirs, which he brought to me on his last visit, two weeks before he died suddenly. This is a beautiful place.

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Gayle–The memoirs must be a real treasure to you now. I’m glad you were able to convince him; strange how life works sometimes. I can’t get enough of Normandy, the people are fabulous and its got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

      Reply
  5. Judy

    Marian, this was very moving piece, my dad was in WWII in the Phillipines. Thanks for the tribute to our soldiers.
    Judy

    Reply
  6. Garden Walk Garden Talk

    You did a wonderful job with this post. The words, sentiment and images are so perfectly expressed. The fog/mist really gave a somber mood to the images, reinforcing the solace. It was almost like a protective blanket on the scene, very comforting. Really wonderful images.

    Reply

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