Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was very good at war. War is about killing, maiming and destroying, a futile effort that has never delivered its false promises, but always delivers profound sadness, and unimagined loss. Today I am Chasing Rommel to land’s end where the sea rushes to the shoreline, arriving at the end of its own journey to Normandy. I am at the top of the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach, at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, spending an afternoon with some very remarkable Americans, I will never meet.
Walking into the Normandy American Memorial and Cemetery my senses and emotions begin to rise. It is a summer’s day and the sun shines warmly, illuminating the colorful flora that welcomes you to this place. I find the path is half-filled with people favoring a walk in the shady areas. They are speaking different languages, yet, it is English that finds my ears as it mixes with the sounds of our footsteps. Walking with the crowd of mostly older people, my pace is slowed and I take the opportunity to expand my appreciation of a perfect day at this perfectly maintained place. Turning into the cemetery my eyes fall on the expanse of endless ocean in front of me. I am walking towards Omaha beach.
Searching for words as I look through the cemetery to Omaha Beach, I am reminded of the American writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was no stranger to war when he approached Omaha Beach in a landing craft on D-Day. Looking out towards the beach his recollections of the Americans who first landed not far from where I am walking fill my mind, “…the first, second, third, fourth and fifth waves of [landing troops] lay where they had fallen, looking like so many heavily laden bundles on the flat pebbly stretch between the sea and first cover.” I am facing Omaha Beach where they fell as dead, dying and broken young Americans.
Processing his words with the images of an ocean in front of me, I look to my left - to the west, and there you see them, like they are waiting for you, expecting you.
The rows seem endless, the symmetrical glistening white marble markers standing perfectly in testament to who they were. The white markers, a grave and silent attestation of what was asked of them, what they gave. They wait for all of us in an endless tranquility, that we measure with visits, remembrances, reflections and our words.
My senses filled, I stop and take it all in. Where I am, who I am with, why I am here? The perfectly blue sky silhouettes the greens and whites in the field, and the ocean, the boundary that brought them here, now frames this beautiful image with all its glory and unshakeable sadness.
I think of an earlier visit here, when I was walking with my friend whose Dad had walked across Omaha Beach just a few days after the landings. Together we tried to process this place. Walking slowly between the rows of crosses I said barely above a tear choked whisper, “They were all a Mother’s son”. She is a mother and grandmother; she stopped, eyes widened expressing the pain, she raised her hand covering her mouth holding within her intuitive despair. Looking around us she was processing the field of dead sons, her eyes met mine, there were no more words.
Looking at the field of endless white crosses I search for other words, and again I find Hemingway’s words, but from another war, World War I, an event that changed his life, and the lives of many that he labeled the, “Lost Generation”. In 1929 Ernest Hemingway wrote, A Farewell to Arms and it includes these timeless lines describing war,
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially…”
Hemingway’s words from both World Wars are fitting here above Omaha Beach.
This is a splendid place, as fitting as can be built to remember the American soldiers who died on the coast of France seeking the liberation of a continent, far from home. A place that balances man made beauty and natural wonders. A place full of color and detail, sounds and scents, a fitting resting place for:
Every Cross and Star of David is an explanation of the exacting price freedom demands. And this field of thousands of crosses and stars represents the exacting price paid by American Soldiers, and their families, for a small strip of land on the northwestern coast of France. A piece of land that represents the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Nazis and World War II.
My walk continues towards the sea, where I meet a stone wall, a shady spot, offering a cool respite and hard seat. I am as close to the sea as you can be in this place. I become an observer of those like me who have made the journey to this place.
I first notice those who do not appear to notice where we are. Mostly they are younger, raised in an age that has insulated them from a World War. Their venial knowledge perhaps relegated to the black and white images of text books, or an old family member whose participation is memorialized by his silence. Often families never understand the role an aged parent or grandparent served when war threatened the entire world. They pass on the crunchy red-stone path, in shorts and sandals; laughing, joking, and grabbing at each other the way restless and bored young people do. They are occupied by their 21st century technological devices, including their annoying selfie sticks, which allows them to put themselves in an image where I believe they do not belong.
They are oblivious to me, the casual observer, and the thousands of dead behind them. They speak foreign languages, delivered without reverence or respect. I am grateful I cannot understand their conversations as they pass.
My eyes wander past them as I shake my head slowly in disapproval of what they have brought to this place. I then wonder if, as a youth, my reaction might have been as theirs’s is, removed and uninterested. They pass, as does my minor irritation with their youthful indiscretions. Still more pass and I observe the dichotomy of what was and what is. It is all framed by my mind’s eye and locked into a moment and image, which is colorful with its contrasts. I must admit it leaves me feeling empty for those whose remembrances are so limited.
The crowd passes, as does their foreign sounds and antics. My view of the endless white markers that seem to grow from the manicured rich green grass is restored. From my perched position on the stone wall under the shady tree, my thoughts find my own recollections of the men buried here. They were each a Mother’s son and a Father’s legacy.
From the direction of the visitor center, memorial museum and beautiful infinity pool stretching into the ocean that divided the New and Old worlds, slowly walk two small families. They walk carrying the weight of a museum full of names and stories, contributing to the reasons of why you are here visiting those who could not leave Normandy. Exiting the museum you walk on the red gravel path that seems to speak as you walk. Your steps voicing your journey towards the bluff that overlooks the beautiful beach. Gently the path turns left, to the west, and you see just to the right the full expanse of Omaha Beach. The shining sea greeting the sand that leads to the sloping hill of green brush, and on this warm summer’s day the presence of beachgoers remind me it was a place of holiday before it was a symbol of American death and sacrifice. As the path straightens out, your world which was moments ago defined by black and white photos and texts, becomes a colorful vista of white grave markers and beautiful green trees and grass that silently tell you the rest of the story of the Americans in Normandy.
A woman in white leads the first family down the path. She is walking purposely with her husband and slows to a stop saying, “This is shocking”. Turning away from her husband, her eyes fall on her son, a boy in his late teens who is talking to his teen age sister; they are oblivious to this place and the new meaning their mother has found here. Words disappear here, replaced by expressions of unsettled emotions. Here for some, for the first time the sacrifice hits home. Here your imagination can blend with reality causing discomfort and relief. She knows it was different once as her eyes leave the endless rows of marble crosses and fix on her disconnected son. I imagine her mind is full of thankfulness for the time he inhabits, not the time here that has stood still - the lost time of the dead young men, surrounding her - some were not much older than her son.
In this place the black and white images of text books, old movies, and television documentaries, disappear as you leave the 20th century and join the 21st century in the form of her very much alive son. Not lost on this mother is a grave yard full of other mother’s sons, and the powerful realization, supported by images of white marble memorials, of young vibrant lives, offered in the extreme sacrifice for country. Her steps become quiet as she leaves the gravel path and begins her journey with Americans she will never meet.
For a moment it is quiet. I pay no notice to the seas and wind. I am occupied by only the visual. The family of four walks away together. The woman in white puts her arms around each of her children as they move together through this field of broken American lives.
The second family approaches with a woman in black walking lightly, carried by this near perfect summer’s day beside the English Channel below. She is younger than the woman in white. Her steps are uninterrupted on the crunchy gravel path that turns from the seaside towards the field of white crosses. She stops and surveys her surroundings. She looks back to the beach below. She turns again, and this time her gaze locks to the endless white markers. She seems to have remembered where she is, connecting the peaceful inviting beach behind her to the thousands of dead before her. Her earlier light steps are now slowed, as if burdened. She stops and attaches herself to the man with her, and together seem to be processing this place. They walk off the crunchy stone path, onto the perfect green lawn as they silently approach the Americans they will never meet.
Walking through the crosses at first she sees the side facing east, towards the land they liberated. That side is unmarked. But as she passes them, she turns and sees the names that face west, locked into an eternal gaze towards their homeland, communities, and families. They unwillingly offered them in a violent exchange for a peaceful world that has never fully arrived. But here above Omaha Beach, it is nearly peaceful, and mostly quiet, underscored by the soundtrack of the sea, the wind, and the sounds of the present day invaders on the red-stone path.
The woman in black is motionless. She sees the names, almost all have a name. Her eyes locked onto one cross; the name is carved into the marble along with the day he died, his rank, his military unit, and home state. Her neck twists, her legs straight and together, her arms suddenly limp, the names - all the names, the endless sea of names. All dead. Lives mostly ended violently, chaotically, mercilessly. She understands now, and slowly turns, to walk away, but the names are on only one side. She turns back towards the names and stops again, as if she is expecting to recognize a name, or maybe her home State. Her whole body turns, she sees just how many are here, a vision at times incomprehensible. Sitting on the wall watching her, I realize I do not know her name, but I mourn with her. Slowly she turns away, and walks westerly towards the country I believe we share. She fades into the field, only her black dress visible against the white and green background.
Sitting on my wall all has gone eerily quiet. The sounds of wind and waves for the moment subordinated to the sounds of the large American flags snapping in salute to those who stayed here in Normandy. Now it is my turn to walk amongst the field of the fallen heroes I will never meet. My last thoughts as I sit on the wall that separates Omaha Beach and its overcrowded cemetery are of my father, who was a US Army veteran. It was nearly a year to the day that we buried a man I greatly admired and sorely miss. Slowly standing I thought of the intersection of my worlds at that moment and the words of the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote:
“In peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”
I move slowly from my seat on the wall, feeling pain and sorrow, my eyes welling with tears. I walk over the crushed stone path, onto the green carpet of grass, and out of the shade. I am in the warm summer sunshine, as I begin what is always my last walk in Normandy.
Walking towards them you immediately notice their alignment. In every direction they are in straight, unbendable rows, one beside, behind or in front of the other. Rising from the manicured grass, they are perfectly set and equidistant, and appear almost as an optical illusion. The spacing creates paths. The ground is level, smooth and even, and invites you to walk easily between them, with them. But my walk is different. I walk from side to side, back and forth, crossing lanes and rows of marble markers. I walk weaving around them, not orderly and straight, thinking that their world was not orderly and neat, as it is today. Thinking of them I try to read all the names, but it is impossible.
They were from a growing, mostly peaceful American country full of immigrants and their sons and daughters. They came from cities, town and villages with farms, schools, churches and lots of hard work. And they all went to war together.
On D-Day it was the small town of Bedford, Virginia that was required to pay the most exacting price, as twenty three of her sons died in Normandy. They served in the 116th Regiment, of the 29th Infantry Division. Most were killed landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach. On a percentage basis, Bedford, Virginia lost more soldiers on D-Day than any other city or town in the United States.
As I walk into their world, it’s the names that draw me. Names like so many American boys have: John, Edward, Anthony, and Donald. They are followed by a last name, but that is less important to me. I greet them, saying their names softly under my breath. I call them what their buddies would have called them: John becomes Johnny, Edward becomes Eddie, Anthony becomes Tony, and Donald becomes Donny. I don’t say their last names. Below their names is their rank, unimportant to me, now, here they are all equal. Beside their rank is the unit they served with, and beneath that their home state, and the day they died. Those too are of no consequence for me, they all died in the same war, for the same country, for the same reasons, in the same place.
I walk slowly touching each cross like an old friend on the shoulder. The white marble markers are warmed by the summer sun. Passing between them with a deliberate slowness, I whisper thank you, my words often fading as I choke with emotion, believing somehow they hear me. As I come to rest under a shady tree I see a red rose at the base of a white marble marker. The rose was left upright, not lying before the marble marker but against it, parallel with it, as it too raises in memorial. My eyes follow the rose and beyond, looking for his name. But there is no name, the inscription different from the others I have passed. I will never know his name.
The last thing the world will know about him is - he is unknown. There are three hundred and seven graves of the unknown in this place. Kneeling down before the rose and the white marker, I brush my hand across the letters, feeling my fingers slowly fall into the chiseled marble, “HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY”. The words exalting and appropriate. My fingers find the next line is deeper, the letters are bigger. My fingertips fall into the crevasses, leading my eyes across these dominating words, “A COMRADE IN ARMS”. The last line is smaller again, “KNOWN BUT TO GOD”. My fingers stop here, and I think that before this place, before the world was at war and consumed him and his identity he was known to others. He was known to more than just God. It does not fit with me, he should be known to others, he should be known to me, as he rests here with his comrades in honored glory.
I continue my walk amongst them as I am heading for the reflecting pool and the twin American flags that flank the paths on each side of the pool. The large flagpoles seems like a gate that greets the visitors that enter by the reflecting pool. My steps are slower still, as I do not want to leave them. For many years now my journey here has been a yearly pilgrimage, and my time here with them is the end of my time in Normandy. They will be here forever, memorializing: a life, a loss, a nation, and our liberties.
Standing near the last row of markers, it is 5:30 on this sunny afternoon on the coast of France. With one hand resting on a grave marker, all seems to stop. The old and young, Americans and foreigners, veterans and citizens alike hear the three loud cannon shots come over the cleverly hidden loud speakers. The noise unexpected by most, causes curiosity and investigation and one notices the small group assembled at the base of the large American flagpole standing at attention. Those who are familiar, remove their hats, and place their right hands over their hearts, and stand straight and proud. Others just stop, listen and watch. The pause after the cannon shots is brief, yet it lingers until you hear the bugle. The sorrowful sound of a lone bugler fills all 172 acres of this place. Taps is played with its deliberate slowness, the sound glides over the living and the dead, as the wind delivers it onto the beach below.
My mind is full of images of then and now, what was and what remains here in Normandy. The melancholy words become mixed with the names, and the images of nearly endless shinning white markers.
The first three notes end with the last note lifting as if for God himself to hear. The tones instantly recognizable, reminds me of their vocal accompaniment - “Day is Done.” It continues, but unhurried; usually it takes less than one minute to play. The next group of notes rising higher than the opening three notes - “Fading light dims the sight”. It evokes in that single minute all their sacrifice -“Thanks and praise for our days” All the loss here, it sorrowfully laments all that was - “Sun has set, shadows come” and all that could have been -“While the light fades from sight”. In each of the 9,397 Tombs, 307 Unknowns, and 1,557 Missing in Action, are names that were etched into America’s national soul in 1944 - “And the stars gleaming rays softly send”. On the Normandy Coast of France, over 3,000 miles from the United States, the country, our country that offered them for a better world - “To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend”
Taps ends and all is appropriately silent, it is as if time is standing still. My walk past the memorial and reflecting pool is slower and burdened, different from when I arrived here. It is always that way for me as I try to leave this place. But I never do leave this place, or it never leaves me. The burden I feel as I slowly walk back to my life is the thousands of silent voices whispering from their graves – “Earn This”