Saturday, March 5, 2011

BEDFORT: Normandy

So just a warning: this is not going to be a normal post. I'm going to be recounting our day in Normandy, and it's really going to be less "Omg I fell down in front of some foreign people and they laughed at me LAWL" (even though that did happen) and more thoughtful reflection. If there's one thing I refuse to joke about, it's the sacrifice of soldiers. So if that's not your thing or you don't find it interesting, you probably shouldn't even read this. Just saving you from boredom.

Taking the tour of Normandy was probably the best decision I've made in a very long time. Our guide picked us up at the Bayeux train station and proceeded to drive us to the beaches, all the while giving us background information on the area and D-Day. For example, as we were leaving town we got on this road that apparently was built by the British right after they arrived to make travel around Bayeux easier. On this street are a few roundabouts, but in the area they don't call them that or the French word for roundabout either. Instead they still call them by the British term "bypass", or, as our guide said, with their accent, a "beepass." Driving through the rural area to get to the beaches was just as you'd imagine the french countryside to be. Certain areas seemed to be right out of Band of Brothers, with hedges and trees, while there were also tiny, adorable towns with livestock right off the side of the road. Another anecdote- every one of these tiny towns had its own church, predictably. But when the Allies were bombing the area, they would first drop flyers over the towns warning the citizens of what was coming. They knew the Germans often set up guards or even mines outside the towns to keep the people in the town, and many took refuge en masse in the churches. So when they were bombing, they avoided hitting churches or cathedrals. I'm not sure how good their aim was or what their success rate was, but I'd like to believe this was effective.

Our first stop on the tour was Pointe du Hoc, a German artillery point where the Rangers scaled a cliff face before the invasion. This land was actually given to the United States, so while we were there we were technically in America. I didn't know anything about this place before the tour, but it was incredible. The ground is still covered for yards with craters and some German bunkers still stand with enough stability that you can go into them. There is also a bunch of barbed wire still lying around and giant blocks of cement are strewn all over, from when the Germans blew up one of their bunkers with a grenade. When you see the cliff face and think of the Rangers climbing up there using just rope, it's truly terrifying. While there was something like 250 when the mission began, I think something like 90 of them were left after only a few days. On the edge of the cliff, there stands a memorial in the shape of a dagger, which is the Rangers' symbol.

Our next stop was Omaha beach, which is what most people think of when they think of Normandy and the invasion. And actually seeing this place and knowing what took place there was extraordinary. What I didn't know and what really struck me was that the first lines on D-Day were not made up of members of the Army or the Marines, but were of the national guard. I was pretty confused when our guide told us this but he explained it this way: When you are implementing such a grand invasion and movement, you can't or shouldn't put your most trained or skilled men on the front lines. They'll be needed later as the mission continues inland. So these men of the national guard made this sacrifice on Omaha, and the soldiers of the other branches were preserved in greater part thanks to them. However, while there on the beach, our tour guide did let us know one of the major inconceptions about the beach invasion. Thanks to movies like "Saving Private Ryan" (one of my personal favorites), most people think the vast majority of casualties from D-Day occurred on the beach. But in reality, only about 8% of the casualties occurred on the beaches. Also, the start of SPR shows soldiers getting off the duck boats and being taken down by machine gun fire. But this was impossible, because only cannons could have reached that far into the water, and as we already learned, the Germans moved their cannons away from Pointe du Hoc and the beach earlier. Our tour guide also told us that what is now Omaha beach was a popular tourist area before the war, and after it was over, the locals tried their best to return it to its former status. They have since been successful in this, and he told us a story of a veteran returning to the beach and seeing young children playing in the water. The man starts crying as he watches and says to his companions, "This is why I fought."

Our last stop on the tour was the American cemetary over Omaha beach. Like Pointe du Hoc, this area was American territory. Since its creation in the 50's, this place has been preserved and kept in pristine condition. Whoever it was who designed this cemetary completely hit the mark. It is absolutely gorgeous and completely respectful and reverant of the sacrifice the hundreds laid to rest there made. Now, I am by no means an especially patriotic person, I am much more likely to critique America than praise it (unless the Olympics are happening- oops I said no jokes). However, being in this place of national loss and seeing those sacrifices laid out in perfectly alligned rows that stretched on and on... it affected me. I'm really struggling to actually put how I felt into words here. All those men buried so far from home, they had mothers and fathers who had to continue living without their child. They had girlfriends and wives whose greatest fears were realized. They had children who would grow up without stories and sad expressions instead of their own fathers. Walking around the cemetary, I could not help from feeling incredibly guilty, and while it doesn't really make sense, I found myself saying "I'm so sorry" over and over to occassional graves. But this is why we need to preserve and visit these places: to feel something and better understand the reality and humanity behind the past.

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