from Tyler Freeman, IFCPP Program Manger
I had the privilege of visiting the D-Day Landing Beaches, with my husband, just a week before the 75th Anniversary of that historic day. What an honor it was to be able to witness the build up to the commemoration events happening in the Normandy region.
We were told before we went to Normandy that the people there have not forgotten who it was that liberated their families from the Nazis. That became apparent as soon as we started getting close to the town of Bayeux, which is the perfect base for visiting the landing sites. We were immediately greeted by as many American flags flying along roadsides and in small towns as you would see here in the U.S. on the 4th of July. As well as many Union Jack and Canadian flags. It was an astounding and emotional site to see, especially being in another country.
On June 6, 1944 more than 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and 150,000 soldiers from the United States, Britain and Canada stormed the Nazi-occupied French beaches of Normandy in a surprise attack known as Operation Neptune or D-Day. There were over 209,000 Allied casualties during the entire operation, known as Operation Overlord, of which D-Day was just the beginning. Overlord lasted from June 6 through August 30 and turned the tide of the war.
During our stay in Bayeux we were able to visit many museums and memorials in the area. Starting in the Bayeux itself we visited the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. The museum is 2,300m² of exhibition space used to present the military operations which took place in the Battle of Normandy during the summer of 1944. It’s a wonderful gateway to the rest of the sites in the area. From there we went to the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise where U.S. paratroopers dropped in during the early morning hours of 6 June. Private John Steele, of the 82nd Airborne Division, was famously caught on the town’s church tower where he hung for two hours pretending to be dead. He was eventually taken prisoner by the Germans but was able to escape and rejoin his unit. There is an effigy of him hanging from the church tower, as well as stained glass windows in the church memorializing the U.S. paratroopers that liberated the town from the Nazis. Also in Sainte-Mere Eglise is The Airborne Museum, which is a French museum dedicated to the memory of paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army. The museum has more than 10,000 items, including the CG-4 glider and the C-47 Skytrain. This entire part the experience was especially poignant for us because my husband spent the beginning of his military career in the 82nd Airborne.
From there we traveled on to Utah Beach and its museum. The Utah Beach D-Day Museum is built on the beach where the first American troops landed and around the remains of a German concrete bunker. It chronologically recounts the story from initial preparations to the final success with a collection of objects, vehicles and oral histories. It is also home to one of only six remaining original B26 bombers. Outside you can make a very short hike up to a small hill that has several monuments to the military units that participated in the battle.
We then moved on to the cliff top memorial of Pointe du Hoc. It was the highest point between the American sector landings at Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east. The German army fortified the area with concrete casemates and gun pits. The cliffs, scaled by the United States Army Ranger Assault Group on the morning of June 6th, 1944, were the only way to infiltrate a German artillery battery that Allied commanders believed could wreck the D-Day invasion. More than a hundred Rangers were killed or wounded during the fighting in and around the guns. There is now a Ranger Monument erected by the French to honor the men that scaled the cliffs.
On the recent 75th Anniversary 100 U.S. Army Rangers reenacted the famous scaling off the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, one of the most famous missions in Ranger history. Veterans of the actual operation were in attendance to observe the cliff scaling.
We next went to see the Omaha Beach memorial, located on the center of Omaha Beach where the worst of the battles took place. It very difficult to picture now, with its wide beautiful expanse of sand, how horrific the events of that day truly were.
Finally, on our D-Day journey we made our way to the Normandy American Cemetery. This is where the most obvious preparation were already being made for the Anniversary events. Construction of a grandstand was underway, as well as a staging area, many ramps, and what appeared to be roof over the Memorial that was already blocked off. Being there, even with the bustle of construction work, was still an emotional but serene experience. This cemetery, on a beautifully green cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, is where some 9,300 men are buried beneath rows of white headstones. It brings in to very bright light the reality of the casualties of not only that war, but all wars.
On the 75th Anniversary officials estimate that about 12,000 people attended the ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery. Along with leaders and dignitaries from The U.S., Britain and France, there were also more than 100 WWII veterans there. On June 7, the cemetery commission also rededicated the visitor center, which has been enhanced with updates and new exhibits.
Throughout the summer of 2019, Normandy will continue to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day with many exciting activities. A rich and unprecedented program of events has been put together to bring the memory of this tragic period of history to life, while also emphasizing the spirit of hope. The anniversary will be commemorated with military parades, firework displays, airdrops, picnics, concerts and military camp re-enactments.
Having worked with IFCPP for over three years now, I found myself evaluating the security of each site we visited and couldn’t help but think about what our member’s impressions might be.