Harry had told us to bring our handkerchiefs. I thought maybe he was being a bit melodramatic. After all, we had seen the place in print and on TV and in the movies, and had read about it our entire lives. We knew what it looked like. We knew what had happened there. We knew what to expect.
Harry led a D-Day tour (no tipping allowed) from his vacation home in Normandy. With wife Heather, fellow Brit pals Phil and Hillary, and Yank pals Diane and me in tow, he brought us first to Pegasus Bridge, which, not having seen The Longest Day in thirty years, I had completely forgotten about. Just northeast of Caen, it was the perfect place to start, since it was where the Allies first landed on June 6, 1944: British gliders landed here just after midnight, the soldiers liberating the first building in France – a café still being run by the same family.
Next up, a few miles to the west, was the village of Arromanches, the site of Gold Beach, where the 50th British Division landed. First viewing the coast from a tourist-laden promontory, I was awestruck by the remains of the second Mulberry Harbor, which had to be built by engineers since there were no natural harbors to protect incoming reinforcements and supplies. The definition of incongruous, several massive concrete caissons, remnants of a horrifically bloody battle, poked out of the water as beachgoers laughed and frolicked in the surf.
Our lunch in Arromanches, the highlight of which was watching Phil tuck into his moules frites without coming up for air for a good thirty minutes, was, like all our meals with our English friends, laugh-filled and leisurely; however, Harry’s plan to cap the D-Day tour with a visit to the American Military Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer was kiboshed, with the six of us arriving just as the gates were closing.
Which is why Diane and I went on our own a couple days later, with Harry’s advice to bring handkerchiefs still echoing in my head. Such British advice, too. We use Kleenex.
I expected to relive the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, with the titular character, in old age, walking among the white crosses of the cemetery, the fabled beaches in the background, an American flag waving on foreign soil. I do that all the time. If there’s any movie connection to be made, I’ll make it. But all thoughts of Hollywood evaporated from my mind as we bypassed the visitors center (we backtracked to it later, and enjoyed it immensely) and made our way to the cemetery.
It is designed such that you approach the cemetery on a walkway that winds through thoughtfully landscaped gardens, the view of the gravestones blocked by strategically places trees, shrubs, and hillocks. You don’t catch glimpses of them, little by little, thereby acclimating your senses to their arrival.
From the walkway that runs westerly along the ridge overlooking the beaches, we turned left and mounted the broad steps leading to the memorial statues and relief maps of the D-Day beaches. And then we looked to the right and froze. From the memorial, we looked out over the sudden expanse of the cemetery, a reflecting pool running away from us, leading our eyes to the nearly ten thousand gleaming white crosses laid out in perfect symmetry.
I glanced over at Diane. She was similarly affected. We had nothing to say. We just sobbed and began walking toward the sea of crosses, where we wandered among the names of the fallen. We had no relatives to seek out; we just read the names and the states they hailed from and the tragically young ages they had been when killed. Our tears subsided, yet we remained somewhat numb. For a moment I was angry at all the lives – and future generations – that were destroyed because of one evil man’s delusional dreams of conquest and all the idiots who enabled him. Mostly, though, I was just plain sad.
We walked down to Omaha Beach. The rusty outlines of a Higgins boat that had spent the past seventy years burrowing into the sand were visible; otherwise, the beach was clean of reminders of the war. Unlike Arromanches, this was not a place for families to have fun. There were no ice cream stands or cafés here, just a few people strolling the beach, frequently gazing up at the bluff, beyond which were the thousands who had died here that fateful day.