I don’t know if I will ever find the words to describe what it felt like to visit the Normandy beaches and walk along the shores of the D-Day landings. I once read somewhere that a single death is a tragedy while a hundred deaths is a number, concept too immense to wrap our minds around. When I went to the Normandy beaches it was with history lessons of WWII and movie scenes of Saving Private Ryan in my mind but popular culture and college American history courses explain the facts but hide the sentiment. Visiting the WWII memorial and American cemetery shows the sentiment and reality of what it means to have a war.
The entrance to the cemetery is a visitor center that doubles as a mini museum showing both artifacts and footage of the time with items such as helmets of soldiers with a picture of a loved one tucked inside. These were the things they carried, the people they loved. The room leads to footage of the war and the enemy fought and you remember that these where the things they fought and died for.
In a way it’s all distant, like a history book, until you walk outside to find a rifle in the ground in honor to the many who gave their lives so we could live ours. Names on a wall blur by and then you are confronted with over 9,000 soldiers—a single white cross or star of David marking their final resting place.
I imagine a young man in uniform standing in place of that cross, perhaps barely shy of 25. This beach that the cemetery overlooks was their last sight, last sunrise, last breath of air. How do I wrap my mind around this immense loss of life? Each man was a son, a husband, fiancé, boyfriend or father and they are now forever lost in time, their lives stalled in a moment in battle now lost to history.
I walked solemnly around the cemetery staring out at the sea of white crosses and I felt gratitude for their sacrifice, sadness for their death, patriotism for our soldiers and above all thankfulness for my life, for the simple joy of being able to walk and breathe easy on the land they once fought to survive on.
The cemetery overlooks Omaha beach, by far the beach that held the most D-Day casualties. We walk down to the beach and it feels like walking through a ghost town. I try to imagine the carnage and terror this beach once saw but with the calmness of the water and the silence of the area makes it hard to imagine this beach ever saw anything. I walked down the beach and realized that this is where so many men took their last steps, where men longed for home and the people back there, knowing they would never see beyond this beach again.
To visit the Normandy beaches is to pay homage to the soldiers who never lived to see the war won and to pay respects to the men whose last breaths were given to the cause of freedom. I’ve never visited a cemetery before this visit and to walk along identical tombstones of men who all died at a similar age is impacting. Even in the town of Rouen, in which I stayed there is evidence of war in the bullet holes found in walls of buildings around town.
I have a rock from the Normandy beach, it was washed up by the tide and half way up the shore on Omaha beach. It’s been years since the sea washed away the blood shed on Omaha beach, since the bodies had been buried and the memories now immortalized in film but this small rock reminds me of the feelings I felt on this visit—the overwhelming sense of gratitude to the thousands of men that fought so we could have a better tomorrow.