Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Walking on Hallowed Ground

Just ten days days after the 66th anniversary of D-Day, I was blessed with the opportunity to step foot on the infamous Omaha Beach. Never had I imagined that I would get to see a place that is held in such high regard by so many Americans. Some would say they get the same feeling when traveling to New York and seeing Ground Zero. Don't get me wrong, I have seen Ground Zero and it was an equally humbling experience; however, being the history buff that I am, especially with World War II, the opportunity to walk along the sands of Omaha Beach is one I'll never forget.

Of course, the moment I learned I would be visiting France, Normandy was an immediate "must" that I just had to see. I wish I could say that it was an easy-going, no worries trip, but I would be lying. Now, that morning, the 2 1/2 hour train ride from Paris to Bayeux was pleasant. I spent my time enjoying the sights of the beautiful countryside and listening to others speak their beautifully fluent French. I'll admit, for months, I had every intention of better educating myself of the French language, but unfortuantely, my efforts were well...effortless.

When we arrived in Bayeux around 10:30 that morning, we anticipated being able to catch a bus that would take us to the American National Cemetery. That would be far too easy, right? Apparently, buses only run every two hours in this little town; something we definitely were not expecting. So, for the next hour, or so it seemed, my sister and I were seriously contemplating how we would get to Omaha Beach. We actually contemplated walking, having heard that it was only about a twenty minute walk. Thank goodness we didn't go that route because we would probably still be trying to find our way.

Pulling out our small English to French dictionary, which came in quite handy, we approached a woman at the train station. Now I even have to laugh at this. When my sister attempted to motion with her fingers "walking" to our destination, not only did the woman's eyes grow to the size of saucers, but she let out, in her strong French accent, "WALK?" Yes, we know...stupid Americans. Deciding that we weren't getting much help, we left the train station and walked back outside, only for me to spot a sign that read "Omaha Beach English Tours Available." Thinking to myself, someone has to be speaking some English there, we walked down to a unique, quaint-looking hotel/restaurant/bar. It looked unbelievably homey; complete with flowered wallpaper, a small, private bathroom, and a bar where you could order Croque Monsieur and Croque Madame--two dishes that we would eventually order later that day.

The gracious man inside offered to call us a taxi and was so kind as to let us sit inside and wait for our saving grace chariot. By the way, did I mention that it was June and our teeth were practically chattering from the cold? I didn't think so. By the time it arrived, we met our driver who informed us it would be around 30 euros one way. Luckily, the things he explained and pointed out to us on our trip through town, made me not resent the fact that this one way cab ride was costing me 30 euros.

Arriving at the entrance to the American National Cemetery, I started to feel a bit of excitement boil inside of me. Part of me was so anxious to see it all that I had to restrain myself from throwing open the side door and sprinting towards the main walkway. The other part of me, although excited, felt incredibly humbled and blessed to be stepping on such sacred ground.

Wrapping our jackets tighter around our bodies, my sister and I made our way up the main walkway and passed the visitors center. All I could think of in that moment, as the breeze pushed hard against my face, was that I would soon be walking along the same stretch of beach where so many men perished. Rounding the turn at the top of the walkway, the sound of crashing waves could be heard in the background. All that was needed was the sight of Allied ships and the sound of gunfire and I would be transported back to June 6, 1944.

Looking up from the ground beneath me, I felt a shudder of emotion wrack my body. Before me was a field of perfectly manicured, lush green grass, and sitting atop it were rows upon rows of white crosses that bore the names of those who had fallen. Each cross was perfectly in line and workers could be seen walking up and down the rows, polishing off any residue that may resting upon these sacred markers. As I walked down the concrete pathway, lined with trees on both sides, I remembered back to the scene in "Saving Private Ryan" when the old man in the beginning was walking along the same path. Looking over at my sister, I saw her eyes grow red with held back tears and I knew she was just as affected as me. The feeling of being among such brave and honorable men; I felt like going to each and every cross and saying 'thank you' for your service.

Not only did we find the crosses to be a breathtaking sight, but the monuments dedicated to our fallen heroes, were equally as beautiful. A tall, circular chapel-like structure stood in the midst of the lawn. A small alter sat towards the front with the engraving "I Give Unto Them Eternal Life And They Shall Never Perish." To both sides stood various flags and on opposite walls, inscriptions could be read. Looking up to the ceiling, I was in awe of the mural that showed an angel watching over these brave soldiers, only to take him in her arms as he lay dying.

Across the way, we walked towards what could be seen as a long, rectangular pool with a semicircle structure built behind it. A black stone man stood in the middle of this arc, extending his hand towards the heavens. Behind him stood a wall consisting of all the names of the missing. After admiring and taking in the beautiful structure, we decided it was time to make our way down the long and winding path, towards Omaha Beach.

I wish everyone could have seen the sight that I did when I reached the beachfront. I found myself asking how I could ever be so lucky as to walk in the footsteps our our nation's finest. Maybe I wasn't sporting combat boots, a helmet, or dodging bullets, but my body was carrying me along a path that for so many, would be their final resting place.

Large sand dunes could be seen for miles while rocks lined the beach. I couldn't help but wonder if somewhere along this beach, underground bunkers remained hidden from that fateful day. Waves crashed against the shoreline as I stood there with my sister, taking in the important and humbling moment. Here I was, 66 years after American Allied forces stormed this beach, and I was on, what I consider to be, hallowed ground--how lucky was I?


Kristen said...

Even if it was hell trying to manuever our way through Bayeux and ultimately, missing out on Pointe du Hoc, I have to say, going to Colleville-sur-Mer & Omaha Beach was absolutely one of my favorite parts of the trip! It was such a memorable, humbling journey and I would definitely go back...just next time, I'll take a tour. :) said...

your writing makes my eyes water! my grandfather wasn't far from there & marched through france on his way to germany...

Nicole said...

I must was most definitely a humbling experience. I have been to Arlington and that was emotional enough, but to be on such a sacred beach like Omaha was unbelievable. My grandfather fought in the Pacific during WWII but to know that I stood where so many men died...there's just not enough words.

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