Monday, May 30, 2016

Pondering war and peace in Normandy

Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer

As I write this, it is Memorial Day in America and the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944, is approaching. Recently, we took our first trip to Normandy where we visited some of the landing beaches, sites, memorials and cemeteries that prominently figured into D-Day, the beginning of the end of World War II.

21,000 U.S. troops landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, along with
14,000 airborne troops. 

225 U.S. Rangers scaled Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. Initially there were only
15 casualties, but during the ensuing battles to fend off five
German counterattacks, 70 percent of the troops were lost.

We prepare for our trip with a bit of homework: We watch a few documentaries and pore over Normandy guidebooks in order to refresh our memories. Many of the basics learned in school have been replaced in our minds with scenes from "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Longest Day."

Higgins Boat Monument at Utah Beach honors the important role
of landing crafts on D-Day and in other WWII operations.

Dozens of museums and memorials line the beaches along the northern coast of France. where in five days 326,547 troops from a dozen countries entered France and ultimately liberated the country and defeated Nazi Germany.

More than 9,000 U.S. soldiers are buried at the Normandy
American Cemetery on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.

For me, the German cemetery at La Cambe is the most moving site
of our Normandy trip. More than 21,000 German soldiers are buried here
— each was once somebody's child.

The Urville cemetery in Granville-Langannerie is the only Polish WWII
cemetery in France. Most of the 696 men buried here belonged to
Major-General Maczek's 1st Armored Division, which
joined the Battle of Normandy in August 1944.

We opt to skip the museums centered around weaponry or specific battles and instead spend the day outdoors, walking along the landing beaches and visiting cemeteries where thousands of those who died in the Battle of Normandy are buried. Ultimately more than 425,000 allied and German soldiers died or went missing between D-Day and the end of August when Paris was liberated. The reverence we feel for these losses is combined with sadness and an overwhelming sense of the futility of war.

Immortalized by the film "The Longest Day," American
Pvt. John Steele's parachute was caught on the church steeple
in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first French town to be liberated.
Steele hung here for two hours before being taken prisoner
by the Germans; he was later released. Today a mannequin hangs
in his honor and stained-glass windows in the church are
dedicated to the paratroopers.

On a lighter note, we are tickled by the name of this
coiffure in Sainte-Mère-Église.

A billboard in Falaise shows what the square and Saint-Gervais church
looked like during the Battle of Normandy.

Église Saint-Gervais in Falaise

A museum dedicated to the civilian casualties of the
Battle of Normandy opened this month in Falaise.

Toward the end of our week in Normandy, we spend a half day at the Caen Memorial Centre for History and Peace. Here we find perspective and understanding of the complex events leading to war, the horrific barbarism of the Nazis and the Japanese, the impact the German occupation had on the France, and the Cold War. The Caen Memorial is less about the strategy of war and more focused on understanding. This should be a mandatory field trip for all politicians.

A huge sculpture based on the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt
photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square
on V-J Day stands outside the Caen Memorial.

Inside the Caen Memorial

Pieces of the Berlin wall are part of the Cold War
exhibition at the Caen Memorial.

Sculpture at the Caen Memorial

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