Four Days in Normandy

Once again, I have fallen a few days behind. I’ve learned that blogging requires time and energy, two things I keep running out of lately.

We spent four days in the Normandy region of France and I don’t have the words to describe some of the things we have seen and places we have visited. This is a bit long and the days sort of run together, but I’ll try and remember it all and give you a run down.

On Tuesday, September 9th, we started the day by driving over to Omaha Beach, where American troops landed on D-Day. I’ve seen the movies, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and others, but to stand on the same ground where hundreds of American servicemen sacrificed their lives is an indescribable experience. It was very moving and I don’t have the words to explain the feelings brought about by standing on that honored ground. The terrain on the beach was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a coastline. The beach area wasn’t very wide and then it turned into cliffs. I tried to imagine what it was like; those men, most of them were really just kids, had to maneuver across the beach, carrying a rifle, an 80 pound pack after wading thru freezing cold water, while being shot at by Germans. It brought tears to my eyes and there was a knot in my stomach. I really can’t describe the experience. One thing that really made me tear up was a display of photos displayed on the beach. They had a large canvas photos of soldiers who had survived D-Day and had come back for different anniversaries. Each man had a heart wrenching story to tell.

Next we stopped by the American cemetery above Omaha Beach. Again, it’s an experience that I can’t describe. Thousands of white crosses in perfect symmetry, each representing an American who was killed. It was even more sad to see the crosses marked “ A soldier known only to God”. That meant a soldier’s family was notified that their loved one was missing in action and they never knew what really happened and where their family member was laid to rest. If you ever have a chance to visit an American military cemetery, you should. I keep thinking of my great uncle, Charles Springer. He was my Grandmother Barksdale’s brother who died in a battle in Germany and is buried in Henri Chapelle cemetery in Belgium. He was just a farm boy who had probably never been out of north Alabama, and there he was, sent to fight in Germany during one of the worst winters that Europe had ever experienced and he paid the ultimate price.

The next stop was Pointe du Hoc. It’s on a top of a cliff that is the highest point between Omaha and Utah beaches. The Germans had built a series of fortified bunkers and fighting positions used to protect coastal defense artillery. A group of Army Rangers were charged with taking the position. They started out with 225 plus Rangers, but after a two day battle, only 90 remained. The cliffs they had to scale in order to take the position are steep cliffs and to say it must have been difficult is an understatement. The numbers of casualties at all these places is staggering. There are still huge bomb craters all around the bunkers at Pointe du Hoc, and again, I can’t imagine what it was like for the German soldiers to endure the hours of unending explosions. The Germans soldiers were serving their country just like the American soldiers were and no matter which side they were fighting for, it must have been hell. Here is a picture of me standing in a crater made by a 2,000 lb bomb:

gayle in crater at Pointe du Hoc

We also went by Utah beach where we saw more memorials. The terrain of this beach is different than Omaha, it was wider and did not have the same cliffs.

We made a couple of quick stops to finish up the day. One at Merville Battery, another German battery built out in the middle of a field. In one of the bunkers, they had set up a sound system and every 20 minutes or so, a siren would go off and they would play a sound track to give you an idea of what it was like to be inside the bunker during a bombing. It was pretty intense, but I’m sure it was not even close to the real thing. The last stop of the day was the radar museum. Yes, such a thing really exists. Steve was really excited about one particular radar, so I stayed in the car and let Steve get out to take a few pictures.

On Wednesday, September 10th, we spent the day with a guide, Geert Van den Bogaert who does private tours for people who want to see specific areas, or are like Steve  desire to see the areas where a relative fought. Here is the link to Geert’s website: www.normandyheroes.com  Steve’s dad, Cisco Rainwater served with Charlie Company, 28th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division. He landed on Utah beach in late July, several weeks after D-day and fought across France to the coastal town of Brest. Steve had looked up his dad’s records, sent those to Geert, so that he could research and take us to some of the specific places where Cisco had been. It was really special for Steve, he got to stand in the field where his Dad spent his first night in France before heading out with his assigned company. We went thru many small villages and towns where battles took place. The French countryside is mainly farm land, as it was during the war, it’s very hilly with a lot of trees and like the landing beaches, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to walk thru those fields, not knowing if there were German soldiers hiding in the next clump of trees waiting to fire. I also found out what “hedgerows” are. When Steve talked about hedgerows, I imagined a row of shrubs. Not at all what a hedgerow is. Hedgerows were developed hundreds of years ago by Norman farmers to use as fences. They piled up dirt, then planted trees and bushes that have grown over the years into walls that completely cover the narrow country roads. It was like driving thru a tunnel and the hedgerows presented a major problem to Allied forces. It’s too long to explain it all, but if you are interested, ask Google about hedgerows in Normandy. Here is Steve in the field where his Dad spent his first night and a hedgerow:

steve in field  Clayhanger-hedge-rows-on-road-south-of-village

One of the many highlights of the day was a meeting Geert has set up with Mrs. Beuve who was the last remaining person in her village who still remembers WWII. We went to her farmhouse that has been in her family for generations and sat around her kitchen table while she shared stories and showed us moments she had collected from U.S. soldiers. She had K-Rations, a deck of cards and a flashlight that a soldier had given her. Her family had moved to town, but when the fighting started they moved back to the farm house, which was just outside of town. Their house in town was bombed and they lost many of their possessions, that were either destroyed by the bomb impact, or stolen by looters. Mrs. Beuve was 20 in 1944, was married and her husband was in the French army. He had been captured and taken to a POW camp in Germany where he worked on a camp farm. She told us that her husband was the last POW from that area to make it home after the war. Such a sweet lady and she seemed very happy that we were interested in her stories.

Mrs. burve

Next on the list of highlights for the day was a trip to a small village of about 700 people called, Milliers. (I tried to put a link in for the  village, but it’s so small, it doesn’t even have a site on Wikipedia.) The village built a monument to the 8th Army Division and the city leaders were very honored that the son of a soldier from the 8th Division was coming to visit. When Geert told them we were coming, the mayor, assistant mayor and honorary mayor wanted to be there to greet us. We were treated like dignitaries and it was very humbling. I kept wanting to ask “do they know who we are”, not in a drunk Reese Witherspoon sort of way, but in a “we are just a couple of working stiffs from Texas and no mayor has ever wanted to meet us before”, sort of way. We all had our picture taken by the memorial and it was a treat to meet such warm, friendly people.

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Thursday, September 11th, we had a slower start. Steve got up early and hiked up a hill in the town where we were staying and found more bunkers that were almost overgrown and watched the sun rise over the beach. I slept in a little and then sat by the water and enjoyed a pan au chocolate and coffee, very French. Then we drove out to Mont. St. Michel, an abbey that was built on a island that you can only get to during low tide. It was beautiful from a distance, surrounded by a foggy haze, it almost looked like a ghost castle. We paid $18 for parking and walked about 2km to get out to the abbey. We were a little disappointed when we got there, it was packed elbow to elbow with tourists trying to walk thru really narrow little streets, almost like shopping at Whole Foods on a Saturday afternoon. We decided not to fight the crowd and skipped going inside, but instead found a few scenic spots to take pictures. The drive to get there and back was really pretty, I love the French countryside, lots of corn fields and horse farms.

sunrise 2

On the way back, we drove thru Villers-Bocage, a small town made famous (at least for WWII history buffs) by a German tank commander who with 5 tanks, held off advancing British forces. Steve said the tactics used by the German commander are still taught today. Next we headed back to Bayeux and stopped to see the Bayeux Tapestry. It was very impressive. About 1000 years old and I forgot how long, but it tells the story of William the Conquerer. We had a few hours of daylight left so we drove out to Gold beach, one of the British landing beaches. Steve wanted to see a “mulberry”, an off loading dock built by the British. While we were driving back to our apartment, we passed a sign for Longues-sur-Mer, another German battery that Steve had really wanted to see. Several of these bunkers still have their guns intact, and I think it may be the only one that does.

Longues-sur-Mer battery

That was it for our day and our trip to Normandy.

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