Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Normandy Landing Beaches and American Military Cemetery

The big selling point of a cruise to Normandy is the shore excursion to the landing beaches.  I mean, sure, Normandy has impressive cathedrals, yummy apple-based alcohol, and caramels.  But (literal) boatloads of Americans wouldn't be coming here regularly were it not for the World War II significance.

The ship offered two different excursions to the beaches, one for Americans (to Omaha) and one for the other allies (to Juno).  There was more demand for the American one -- not so much because there are more Americans on our cruise, but because a bunch of the Australians came on the American excursion, on the basis that they know the American story more than their country's own, thanks to all the war movies.  So we have two buses for the American tour.

The night before, we had a lecture from a historian (and dude hoping to sell us his book) who placed the landing in the greater context of the war.  (The French tour guides we've met have been pretty up front about the fact that it wasn't just the government that capitulated to the Nazis; the general populace was split on whether they supported the Germans.  Guides weren't exactly apologetic, but they did acknowledge it.)  History lesson done, we got up bright and early (actually, no -- overcast and early), piled onto our buses, and drove out to the beaches.

On the two hour drive out, the tour guide told us more stories.  Figuring that we had the history from the night before, she gave us stories from a more personal level -- sharing specific experiences of her family, and the individuals she has met giving D-Day tours over the past couple decades.  

In particular, she mentioned that one of her relatives had owned some property in occupied Normandy -- two houses connected by a garden.  The Germans wanted one of the houses for themselves, so told her relative that he had a day to consolidate everyone in the other house.  The relative was upset because his mother-in-law lived in the second house, and he knew that if his mother-in-law moved in with him, she would never leave.  And this was true -- she ended up staying in his house for another 30 years, long after the war was over.  "So," she tells us, "he had a reason for hating the Nazis."  The bus chuckles.  I don't find this very fucking funny.  Plenty other reasons to hate the Nazis.  Plenty people in Europe lost their houses to the Nazis and didn't have the option of moving their family into the other house, as they were packed on trains for the camps.  Ha ha, your relative had to live with his mother-in-law.  War is hell; he got off fucking easy.

Our first stop (well, the first one that mattered) was at the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc.  The first thing you notice about Pointe du Hoc are the craters.  Round ones were bombs dropped from the sky; oval ones were explosives fired by the Navy (think about it).  And they're everywhere.  The allies bombed the shit out of Pointe du Hoc, but still didn't take out the artillery or the German command bunker until the Rangers ascended the cliffs and (with depleted forces and taking massive, massive casualties) did the bloody impossible.  Go them!  

I'm not sure what I expected to see at the Normandy landing beaches, but it was probably Pointe du Hoc.  The remains of the German command bunker is there -- half buried in the cliff.  You can go down inside it, walk through the rooms, imagine the German soldiers defending the coastline from within.  There's one room which has a long open slit for a window, facing the beach.  When you walk up to it, you see the French have conveniently left a barbed wire barrier just outside it, and you see the view the Germans would have had when sticking their rifles out of that slit and trying to defend the assault.  They also have the remains of the pillboxes the Germans built to protect their heavy artillery, giving you an idea of what the allies were up against.  It's all there; and you can touch it.

(I like touching stuff.  I am touching what they touched; feeling the cold of the cement block wall, the utilitarian metal hook on the wall.  It's an imagination-trigger.)

Two people are late getting back to our bus.  The other bus leaves for our next destination about 15 minutes before ours, while we're waiting.  When we eventually get to our next destination, Omaha beach, the guide gives us 15 minutes there and I realize -- when our bus subsequently leaves at the same time as the other bus -- that the tour guide kept us on schedule due to this couple's lateness by just HALVING OUR TIME at Omaha beach.  I'm pretty pissed about this (taking 5 minutes off Omaha and 10 minutes off the cemetery would have been the better call).  I get that we have a schedule to keep, but this is kind of WHY WE'RE HERE, and 20 people shouldn't get fucked over on their visit to Omaha Beach because 2 others lost track of time at Pointe du Hoc.

(But I was annoyed at the tour guide anyway.  Other people complimented her on the mother-in-law story, so clearly I was in the minority on that one.)

On the plus side, there isn't actually all that much to see at Omaha Beach.  There are two memorials and flags flying for the allied countries; but it's also a beach with kids playing and stand-up-paddle-boarders stand-up-paddling.  Two little kids were collecting sand in pails from right near the sculpture on the beach.  It's very much a "life goes on" type of thing.

I touched the sand.  Nice fresh, wet, unstepped-upon sand.  Packed firmly.  What was it like, I imagined, for the soldiers taking their first steps on that beach?  From the landing crafts where you slipped on the vomit because everyone was seasick; jumping into the cold neck-deep waves; trying to make it on shore under enemy fire, with defensive barriers in the way and absolutely nothing to protect yourself except the human shields of your fallen comrades.  Fuck.  Keep playing in the sand, little French kids.  On behalf of my country, You're welcome.

Jumped back on the bus for the ride up to the American Military Cemetery.  Our tour guide provides us each with a rose to place on a grave if we wished.  She also volunteers that if any of us were of the Jewish faith, we could follow the Jewish tradition and leave a stone.  She tells us we could find stones in the flower beds or on the Jewish Stars.  (I roll my eyes.  Twice.  First, because, believe me, any Jew who has ever been to a cemetery knows where to find a stone.  Second because, REALLY?  The only "Jewish Stars" in this place are other graves, and it's kind of not cool to take a stone off one grave to put it on another.  But partial credit for at least acknowledging the custom.)

Before heading off into the cemetery, we get one more story from the tour guide, and this one is actually good:  She tells us she had a couple on a tour who asked her to use her app (of course there's an app) to find the grave of a family member.  She finds the name and tells them where to go.  When they find it, the wife is angry and says, "That isn't his grave!  It's a cross, not a Jewish star."  And the husband says, "Remember.  He had people in Europe."  And the tour guide understood.  Because Jewish soldiers didn't want to self-identify on their dog tags, because it would put their families at risk if they were captured.  "So," she tells us, "there are 500 Jewish stars here, but probably more Jews."  I kind of lose it.

I casually pick up a stone to place on a random Jewish grave, and I have my rose to place on a random Christian grave, because I'm all equal-opportunity like that.

I'm walking alone in the cemetery and I remember the last time a tour guide handed me a rose to place somewhere.  It was at Auschwitz.  I stood next to my father and we laid two roses in the gas chamber, and whispered Kaddish, the mourners' prayer.  I am standing in the American Military Cemetery surrounded by graves of people whose sacrifice enabled the Allies to END THAT.  I lose it again.  I say Kaddish again; I can think of nothing else to say.

They're young -- the soldiers.  They were all so very, very young -- average age in the cemetery was something like 23.  (One of the guides said the "average age was 21-26," making me think "average" must mean something different in French.)  But, yes, very young.  I thought it ridiculous to call them the "Greatest Generation" -- they were too young to even know who they were yet.  They were just young men, mostly (over 60%) drafted, and they did what their nation called them to do and they got killed doing what history needed them to.

I placed my rose on the grave of some kid who survived the D-Day invasion but died a couple weeks later, on my birthday, in 1944.  

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