Holy Ground

The beach at Colleville sur Mer, France. Nearby is the American cemetery with the sculpture "The Spirit of American Youth Rising."

The beach at Colleville sur Mer, France. Nearby is the American cemetery with the sculpture “The Spirit of American Youth Rising.”

Few places on earth can compare with Normandy in France. Can you imagine a scene as placid and peaceful as this one?

In the first photo, my wife Mary Ellen gazes over the bluff and down onto the beach at Colleville sur Mer. Such quiet, such tranquility. It was not always this way.

This is near the eastern end of the shore section code-named Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944. That June 6 it was anything but placid and peaceful, as American soldiers waded slowly onto the shore and into cataracts of bullets fired by unseen enemies high above.

As one proceeds to the west, the bluff rises higher and steeper and gives an even stronger advantage to entrenched defenders. The second photo is of Vierville sur Mer, on the western end of the Omaha Beach sector. The large objects in the water there are the remains of “mulberries,” the artificial docks that were needed to bring trucks, tanks, and other mechanized equipment to the land.

Vierville sur Mer, France, the westernmost part of Omaha Beach.

Vierville sur Mer, France, the westernmost part of Omaha Beach.

Beyond Vierville is Point du Hoc, the high vertical cliff that Army Rangers scaled with the aid of extension ladders from the London Fire Department, and the beach code-named Utah.

Such a flood of emotions gripped me on our trip there in 2000: patriotic pride, and gratitude and admiration for those who came ashore and somehow, some way, prevailed in the end. But most of all, it was sadness, an overwhelming sadness for all those young men from Canada and Britain and America who suffered so much that day and did not return.

I wasn’t there that day, and I’ve known just a few people who were. Andy Rooney – good old, acid-tongued, unsentimental Andy – landed a few days after D-Day and proceeded to write about what he’d seen on the war’s front lines. One of his most revered commentaries goes, in part,

“No one can tell the whole story of D-Day because no one knows it. Each of the 60,000 men who waded ashore that day knew a little part of the story too well. To them, the landing looked like a catastrophe.

“Each knew a friend shot through the throat, shot through a knee. Each knew names of five hanging dead on the barbed wire in the water 20 off shore, three who lay unattended on the stony beach as the blood drained from holes in their bodies. They saw whole tank crews drowned when the tanks rumbled off the ramps of their landing craft and dropped into 20 feet of water.

“There were heroes here no one will ever know because they’re dead. The heroism of others is known only to themselves…On each visit to the Beaches over the years, I’ve wept. It’s impossible to keep back the tears as you look across the rows of markers and think of the boys under them who died that day.

“Even if you didn’t know anyone who died, your heart knows something your brain does not – and you weep.”

Mr. Rooney is so right. When I came across these pictures today, almost fifteen years after standing there in Normandy and taking the pictures, I felt those tears welling up once again.

I think that every American should make the pilgrimage to Normandy at least once in his or her life. That’s what it is. It’s not a trip. It is a pilgrimage to holy ground.

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One Response to “Holy Ground”

  1. Patrick J. Daly (@pjdaly7) Says:

    My wife and I visited Normandy in 2008, Tom, and we share your sentiments. There was a certain reverence… a sacredness, about the place that is hard to describe to someone who has not been there. Your piece captures the essence of an unbelievable and unforgettable place in history.

    Pat Daly

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