A day that taught me the meaning of humility
As I browse through Facebook, I see the posts from people who recognize that today is the day, 75 years ago, when the Allies landed at Normandy. A beautiful stretch of French coastline was to become the breeding ground for beginning of the end of Hitler, his Nazis and the second world war in Europe. Many people would die, among them number of boys who did not want to get off the landing craft that day.
Several years back my husband George and I visited Paris. Not having been able to book a tour of Normandy and Omaha Beach online before we left California, we chanced my ability to speak some French, got on a train at Gar du Nord and left for the town of Bayeux — a tiny village that had been left entirely intact during the German occupation.
We got off the train, where a line-up of taxi drivers waited for people like us to ask about taking us to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. I asked in French how many euros it would take, and their answer was ridiculously high. But just behind them was a 1950s style billboard, with animatedly happy people pointing to the name of a tour company, which it said was contained in a little auberge (tiny hotel) just beyond the train tracks. We crossed over and walked inside its minuscule lobby, where a short. bald little Frenchman with a mustache and a sing-songy nasal voice greeted us. “Ah. You are zhust in time for zee tooor!” he said. “You pay me now, have zee lunch in zee town, and when you come back, my man Roman will take you and zee other people in zee van!”
We hesitated, wondering if we were literally being taken for a ride by plopping our money down and walking away for a few hours. But the guy was so cute. So we paid and hoofed it into the town of Bayeux. There we felt as if we had just been transplanted into an old movie. Our breath was taken away by a waterwheel so picturesque I felt as if we were on a Hollywood set, and the cathedral was a dramatic as any we had seen in Paris. We found a tiny restaurant, ordered a few “Croque Monsieurs”, paid the bill and headed back to the auberge.
Our tour operator welcomed us back, shaking his head but saying “Ohn ohn ohn! We do not have zee others to join you, so you will have zee private tour!” Soon Roman emerged from a back room and was introduced to us. He was an English-speaking native as well as a local and was about to drive us to the memorial and the beach where the invasion occurred. Our adventure had begun. All three of us piled into the front seat, leaving the rest of the rickety old 9-passenger van empty. And since Roman was easy on the eyes, I didn’t mind sitting in the middle.
First we went to the port of Arromanches, the location where British support personnel and supply ships had been received by the thousands, tethered to mulberries, temporary docks created just for this purpose. Here, in the midst of the D-Day beaches, you still get a strong sense of the huge effort involved in the Allied invasion to liberate France and the rest of Western Europe. Evidently, troops deliberately did not land at Arromanches on D-Day itself, leaving the coast here clear for a portable harbor (nicknamed Mulberry Harbor) being tugged over from southern England to be put in place. The port was meant to last only a few months but the preparation was enormous. A staggering 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and millions of tons of supplies arrived via Port Arromanches.
By the time we had watched a 1940s movie in a small theater explaining the gargantuan effort that took place at Arromanches, we were eager to see the American memorial and gaze down on Omaha Beach, where our men had landed. Roman told of the history of the area and recounted several locally well-known stories as we bumped along the country roads I had seen in movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day. Roman assured us that the older movie was more accurate, but that didn’t make us question Stephen Spielberg’s ability to move us to tears when depicting it all.
Soon we arrived at the memorial. Roman dropped us at the head of the path and disappeared to a parking lot in the distance. Once we reached the grave sites, we were overwhelmed. White marble headstones glinted in the midday sun, adorned with Christian, Jewish and Muslim insignia to indicate the faith of each of the fallen. Then a booming overhead speaker began playing the national anthem in a series of bells. People stopped in their tracks. You could hear a pin drop. The air was thick with the memory of those who gave their lives there. I could see that everyone there could feel it. It was one of the most impactful moments of my life as I gazed on the rows and rows of the fallen heroes, stretching so far I couldn’t see where it ended.
The rest of the day was spent near the beach itself, where Roman took George into bunkers where huge German guns had once been planted, never expecting to be so close to those who eventually claimed the area as their own. Evidently a British World War II enthusiast had uncovered a vast German defensive position overlooking the Normandy beaches, which, he says, was largely responsible for heavy American losses on D-Day. The complex of tunnels, guns and living quarters was gradually overtaken by nature. According to an article I found online to research this post, it was said, "It was totally forgotten. Local farmers never reclaimed the land, so gradually the bushes and thickets took it over. Only if you looked could you see a rough outline of the fortifications.”
George, who (in my mind) had led the life of a semi-military hero for 24 years as a San Francisco firefighter, was keenly interested in every vantage point, every story and every bunker Roman took us to, knowing none of this was a part of the usual tour. He swore we would return to stay several days there so we could get the full impact of the historic event.
Today’s younger generations may be taught some of this in school, but I believe it is up to us older folks to pass on the meaning of this day. When you see neo-Nazis wearing their insignia and spewing their venom on TV or online, it’s a time to call your kids over and explain to them them how their freedom of speech came at a great cost, even hateful words. And how the supremacy of the human spirit, no matter what the color of skin or nature of worship, is what we value most.