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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.