France is undoubtedly Europe’s most popular vacation destination, ranking No 1 consistently on the Continent-wide tourism survey for the past 20 years. Thousands of vacationers flood the country every year, swarming over Paris and making their presence felt in practically every corner of the country.
Most of the visitors come to celebrate life, love and a country famed for good living and fine cuisine. For some visitors however, a visit to France is more than just about rest and relaxation. For some, it is a pilgrimage more than a holiday, a chance to finally make peace with painful old memories and pay their respects to the dead. For these visitors, the destination of real interest is Normandy, and the most important events are those that occurred long ago, on the 6th day of June in 1944.
The legacy of one glorious, terrible day
On that day in history, thousands of Allied Forces emerged on five landing beaches, sustaining heavy German fire as they struggled up the beaches to begin the massive strike to liberate France and Europe from occupation. Thousands died during the chaotic landing. Thousands more died in the following months of battle. Most recently portrayed in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, this is where Britain, Canada, and the U.S. carried out the largest military operation in history, successfully breaking through the Nazi line and establishing a front for liberating Europe.
More than half a century later, the sacrifice the soldiers paid that day is still remembered. Every year, the peaceful fields of the American National Cemetery sees thousands of visitors. A memorial wall stands before a wide reflecting pool, carved with the names of over 1,500 Americans whose final status was missing in action during the operation. Beyond the memorial, laid out on a manicured lawn, are 9,500 white crosses, each a headstone for a soldier whose body was recovered after the landing. Most list the name and home town of the soldier; some bear only the inscription — A Brave Soldier, Known But To God.
In memory of sacrifice
Some of the people who visit the cemetery are tourists, come to see a sight just like many others on their list of attractions. Others can only be described as pilgrims: family members of soldiers who never returned, come to remember their loss, or veterans, themselves survivors of D-Day, come to pay their respects. In the fields where white crosses stretch on in endless neat rows, they search until they discover the final resting places of family and friends. Some stand still in remembrance. Others weep. Few leave without being humbled by the enormity of sacrifice the white cross represents.
Below the cemetery on its high bluff stretches Omaha beach and the English Channel. It is a beautiful beach — wide and windswept, perfect for picnics and happy, innocent games. Often, families escaping from the congestion of Paris will spend their days on its sands. Most overlook the history of the beach, the thousands who died there during D-Day. Omaha beach saw the highest casualty rate in the landing operation, with over 2,500 lives lost. On the higher reaches of the beach are bullet-scarred concrete and steel bunkers, the remnants of the German fortifications that exacted such a heavy toll.
Just 10 miles inland from the beach stands the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first to be liberated by the Allies during the D-Day invasion, when paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division dropped in and wrested the town away from the occupying forces. Of all the towns which still commemorate the events of that turbulent period — and many town in Normady do — Sainte-Mere-Eglise is the most famous for its depiction in the 1961 movie The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan’s best-selling book of the same name.
For many visitors, the town is the symbol of the Allied liberation of France. Street names commemorate the event: Rue de 505 hme Airborne, place du 6 juin, rue Gal Gavin, rue Gal Eisenhower. In the town church, two stained glass windows commemorate the liberation: one shows a paratrooper being guided to safety by the Virgin Mary, and the other shows a knight surrounded by the shoulder patches of all the divisions involved in the operation. On the anniversary of D-Day, a parachute with a dummy paratrooper is hung from the church steeple, to remember the ordeal of John Steele, who got caught on the church and had to feign dead while German troops shot at him. A hotel now bears his name. The Airborne museum is dedicated to the memory of the liberation.
There are many other tributes to the events of D-Day, memorials and historical markers, preserved remnants from the war and other knick-knacks, but the most touching and precious of remembrances resides in the attitudes of the French themselves. In a time when relationships between the United States and France is fraught with tension, the people of Normandy still keep alive the memory of a time when brotherhood and a sense of shared principles made comrades of the two separated nations. Many of the older generation who had lived during those difficult times still respect and honor the sacrifices once paid by the Americans, even in a time when virulent anti-American sentiment grips much of the world. Those who remember not only keep the memory alive, but also pass the memories on to their children and grandchildren. In the American National Cemetery, many of the graves have been adopted by local families, who visit with flowers as a way of paying their respects and showing their thanks.