Normandy was a turning point for the Allies in World War II. As the largest amphibious invasion in world history, “Operation Overlord” was a combined land, sea and air invasion under the direct command of joint British-American leadership. It continued from D-Day on June 6, 1944 through August 19, 1944 when Allied Forces crossed the Seine.
The combined efforts of Canadians, British, and Americans on a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast paved the way for an Allied victory and a defeated German retreat. Five designated beaches with code names that included Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah, and Sword were used for D-Day landings, with Omaha and Utah under American control. Omaha would prove to be the bloodiest and most costly in terms of human life lost.
Mulberry Harbor in Normandy
I came to Normandy as part of an included excursion with Viking River cruises featuring Paris, Giverny, and Normandy. Our first stop was at the D-Day Museum in Arromanches, also known in French as Musee du Debarquement. Built on the site of one of the artificial Mulberry Harbors, it provides a panoramic view of the area, including some of the leftover World War II artifacts.
This was a most difficult day for me, one marked with sorrow, angst at the loss of human lives, yet overwhelming gratitude for those who defended our cherished freedoms and liberties. This was a day of paid respect, honored remembrances, and deep reflection on hallowed grounds in Normandy.
This museum seems to be on the circuit for many groups and as a result, can be very crowded. Be sure to head off to your right to catch a 20-minute historical film on the obstacles faced in building a harbor in anticipation of D-day. (Much of this was quite new to me). Numerous exhibits also show the various uniforms worn during that time. Then pause at a big picture window to see military artifacts still left on the beach from 1944.
After lunch in Arromanches where many of the buildings displayed modern-day signs welcoming the liberators, we headed to Omaha Beach. This was the bloodiest of the Normandy landings where 2,000 soldiers and sailors met their death in the first few hours.
Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial
We were on our way to the Normandy American Cemetery — one of the most soul stirring experiences in Normandy–when our bus slowed down briefly for our guide to point out the first American cemetery in France during World War II. The remains have since been relocated to the Normandy American Cemetery. We then resumed our journey to the cemetery.
Over one million visitors come annually to pay respect to those Americans who gave their lives during World War II’s Normandy invasion and European military operations. It was dedicated in 1956, with 9,387 burials honored on the manicured grounds. Of these, 307 graves contain the remains of an unknown soldier or sailor. A semi-circular colonnade garden wraps around the memorial, with Walls of the Missing containing the engraved names of 1,557 souls missing in action.
The cemetery and memorial are located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach while white marble crosses line up perfectly, each punctuated with 149 Jewish Stars of David and headstones marking Jewish graves. In the center of the memorial is a prominent 22 foot bronze statue titled “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”
A Yellow Rose for 2LT Walter H. Baker
As we disembark from our bus, each guest is requested to select a single long-stem rose from a container with colors ranging from deep burgundy red to yellow and peach. I chose yellow. (A big thank you to Viking River cruises for thoughtfully providing passengers with roses to pay our respect, and for giving me the opportunity to honor our distinguished but fallen soldiers.)
After walking amongst the myriad of headstones, I laid to rest a yellow rose to honor the memory of 2nd Lt William Baker from California. He gave his life on June 9, 1944 during World War II Normandy invasion. (I made a connection because I grew up in California and because Baker was my previous last name from marriage). On the white cross grave marker, the following was engraved:
Walter H. Baker
2 LT 12 INF 1 DIV
Nearby, a single peach rose adorned an unknown grave marked simply with the words: “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms known but to God.” In addition to the unknown are three Medal of Honor recipients, 41 sets of brothers, and a father and son.
Our time roaming the cemetery grounds was followed by a special scheduled ceremony in the courtyard of the memorial. I wanted to be there. During the brief dedication, taps and salutes were rendered to those who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. The blue skies overhead were punctuated by several fleecy white clouds. As the music played, a single tear gently rolled down my cheek as I contemplated the magnitude of those sacrifices.
Then, something quite unexpected happened. The moderator asked for all those who were serving and who had served in the American uniformed services to step forward for a moment of gratitude – to thank soldiers and sailors for their service. As a retired naval officer, I knew I should claim a spot, so I marched forward to an area not far from the central bronze statue. I was joined by a majority of men and a few other women. With the disguise of sunglasses shielding my face, a couple more tears easily welled from my pre-moistened eyes.
One of five code-named sectors in Normandy, Omaha Beach was the responsibility of the United States during the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. It proved to be the most difficult to claim during the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, resulting in a severe loss of life.
I made my way past unfurled Allied flags flapping in the breeze to a beach with iconic seaside cliffs to my left. In front of me was the Omaha Liberation Monument dedicated to those Americans who lost their lives. As I circumvented the memorial, my eyes fixated on a monument – a metallic sculpture that seemed as if it were buried in the sands yet reaching gallantly toward the deep blue skies.
Les Braves Sculpture in Normandy
My most riveting moment at Omaha Beach was soaking in the symbolic hope and beauty of Les Braves – a metal sculpture forged by the visionary and talented artist Anilore Banon. Ensconced on Omaha Beach, this official commissioned sculpture was dedicated in 2004 for the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day. Standing upright and stark against the sky, it is enveloped at high tide by the encroaching sea, yet still stands tall, mighty and enduring.
The 30 ft. tall stainless steel sculpture honors the soldiers and sailors who liberated France in World War II. The center harbors seven columns: two columns stand upright while five columns curve upwards. On either side are a grouping of five stainless steel wings, gracefully framing the interior sculpture. Les Braves consists of three elements: The Wings of Hope, Rise Freedom, and the Wings of Fraternity. These are the words of the French sculpture on the symbolic meaning of Les Braves:
The Wings of Hope
So that the spirit which carried these men on 6th June 1944, continues to inspire us, reminding us that together it is always possible to change the future.
Rise of Freedom, So that the example of those who rose up against barbarity, helps us remain standing strong against all forms on inhumanity.
The Wings of Fraternity
So that the surge of brotherhood always reminds of our responsibility towards others as well as ourselves.On 6th June 1944, these men were more than soldiers, they were our brothers.
~ Anilore Banon.
Longues-sur-Mer Gun Battery
Our last stop for a day of remembrances was at Longues-sur-Mer Gun Battery (Batterie de Longues). This German artillery battery is located between the Allied landing beaches of Gold and Omaha, and was a strategic location for the Germans in defending their positions during World War II. There is a total of four 150-mm guns in various stages of decay at this site and is the only coastal battery to have kept its guns, resulting in an accurate rendition of Germany’s Atlantic Wall coastal fortifications.
On the way back to our Viking longship Rolf, I silently reflected on the sacrifices of all those before us and especially those during World War II. My yellow rose dedication to LT Baker was a symbol – especially to me – of never forgetting the face of heroism and bravery.
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Written by and photos by ©Karin Leperi, All Rights Reserved