Monday, May 26, 2014

Our D-Day Tour of Normandy

Since today is Memorial Day, I thought it would be a fitting time to share pictures of our recent visit to Normandy, France, where we were very moved by our visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

My husband, Alex, has been very active in local efforts honoring our veterans, and through this work he got hooked up with a man who lives in France, an Irishman named Dave, who generously offered to meet us at the local train station and guide us on our D-Day tour. Our first stop was the Visitor Center at the cemetery in Normandy, and I was tearing up before we even got through that. I was so touched by the exhibits of photographs and artifacts from the war. It stopped me in my tracks when I saw that one of the women killed while serving has the same name as a friend of mine. If I had been alive back then, that might have been my friend — or me. We also saw pictures of the four actual brothers central to the movie "Saving Private Ryan."

The area leading down to the beach is beautifully landscaped and has seating areas that I'll bet are popular with the veterans and families who visit. You look out at the quiet, peaceful beach and have a hard time imagining the events of June 6, 1944.

There's nothing quite as sobering as seeing those rows of crosses and imagining all the pain and suffering and loss they represent. I stood there feeling so proud of these Americans who fought for freedom, and it was a strange feeling to have to remind myself I was in France, not America.

The chapel was a fitting place to visit on such a trip.

The mosaic ceiling is absolutely beautiful, and it shows, according to a brochure I got, "America blessing her sons as they depart by sea and air, and a grateful France bestowing a laurel wreath upon the American dead."

Here's a detail from the mosaic depicting a warship.

Of course what gets you are all the crosses and Stars of David. A few had single flowers or even large floral arrangements placed before them. Dave told us the flowers are allowed to remain until they die, and then they are removed. This cross bears the name of Harry E. Wagner of Pennsylvania, and there's a reason the lettering shows up.

Some visitors, Dave said, get sand from the beach and rub it into the carved lettering to make the names visible in photographs.

Soon we were on our way and headed a little farther down Omaha Beach. As we got out and walked on the beach, I was again struck by the serenity and the peacefulness. It was a far cry from all those ships arriving with soldiers, and all the lives who were lost on D-Day.

Here's a National Guard of the United States Memorial on Omaha Beach, located above what was once a bunker.

The morning's rain began to clear out almost the moment we arrived in Normandy, and it ended up being a gorgeous (if cold and chilly) day. Here we stopped by a section of Utah Beach in Ravenoville where our friend Dave lives. I asked Dave if the beach is really used as, you know, a beach during the warmer times of year. Oh yes, he said. I was pondering whether that is appropriate when he commented that a veteran told him, "That's what we fought for," so that people could enjoy their everyday lives here. The more I thought about it, if the beaches were treated merely as the graveyards they once were, that wouldn't have been a very happy end to the story, would it?

Alex and I knew that Dave and Celine had a World War II memorial near their home, a memorial dedicated to soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division. What we did not realize was that this memorial is in their front yard! They are quite passionate about their love for the veterans and hold a memorial event around D-Day each year. With this year marking the 70th anniversary, they will be hosting several hundred guests under tents right here at their home in Ravenoville!

Here are Dave and Celine in front of the memorial displaying a book Alex brought for them containing the stories of our local veterans who fought in WWII, one of whom, the late Gene Cook, they met and even hosted in their home. (One of the many times I thought, "It's a small world.")

Since we'd left Paris at the crack of dawn to take the train in time for a full day in Normandy, we had skipped breakfast and were getting pretty hungry. To our delight, when we stopped by their house, Celine said she had a "snack" for us, but it was what we call "lunch" at my house: Chicken salad sandwiches, shortbread cookies and tea! Her chicken salad was awesome, by the way, and I learned she makes hers with shredded carrots and diced tomatoes. I will be trying this!

And I was chilled to the bone after walking those windy beaches, so I was especially happy when she offered me a hot cup of nice, brisk tea. What kind? A black tea from India, she said. Celine is French but speaks English beautifully. I've thought about the fact that I was sipping Indian tea at a house in France with a Frenchwoman and an Irishman giving us a tour of the D-Day sites. Small world indeed!

After lunch, Dave drove us to Marmion Farm in Ravenoville, a farm which is featured in some famous WWII photos. A news reel that was shot here contained the first images of U.S. paratroopers to be shown back in America.

Dave was keen for us to recreate one of the famous photos of D-Day, so here Alex and I are at Marmion Farm in the exact spot in front of the farmhouse where U.S. soldiers are shown after capturing a Nazi flag.

We wrapped up our D-Day Tour with a visit to St. Mere Eglise, the first village in Normandy to be liberated by the Allies that day. A paratrooper, Private John Steele, actually got caught on the tower of the church here, and an effigy hangs on that tower today.

Dave says this is always the first photo everyone takes when they see the church. Steele hung there for two hours pretending to be dead, was captured by the Germans, escaped, and returned to his division. He was made an honorary citizen of St. Mere Eglise and returned to the town throughout his life. (He's played by actor Red Buttons in the D-Day movie "The Longest Day," which I watched for the first time this weekend. I definitely feel that my love of history has gotten a boost from this trip!)

This is a stained glass window of the church which shows the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus with paratroopers around them. The inscription reads, "This stained glass was completed with the participation of Paul Renaud and Sainte Mere, for the memory of those who, with their courage and sacrifice, liberated Sainte Mere Eglise and France."

There's also a great museum in the town, the Airborne Museum, which is dedicated to the memory of the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division. I loved having tea in London, and later this week I'll share about our magnificent time in Tuscany, but I would absolutely tell you that the most memorable day of the entire trip was this jam-packed visit to Normandy. May God bless America — and our friends around the world too!


  1. It's an awesome place. You brought back so many memories for we made that same visit 3 years ago. The cemetery is so awe inspiring!

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this fantastic trip. I have never been to France and the pictures and your thoughts about Memorial Day are poignant.
    Again, thank you for sharing.

  3. In tears here. This is a trip that we must take. My husband has so wanted to do it and I've always said we could attach it to a trip to England. I will be happy to tell him you did just that.
    What a memorable birthday.
    xo Ruthie

  4. Wow. That was indeed a memorable day. Thank you so much for sharing it on Memorial Day!

  5. Your post is a beautiful tribute to the soldiers that gave their lives so that we may be free. Happy Memorial Day!

  6. Yes thank you for sharing your visit. A wonderful reminder on this Memorial Day. We visited a Military cemetery today in NJ where my Dad was laid to rest. It is a breathtaking moment when you see thousands of flags waving over peaceful ground under a beautiful blue sky. Your trip sounds perfect!

  7. Thanks for sharing this very special stop on your trip. I haven't been there, but your photos make me feel a part of it. How wonderful to have a special tour guide and lunch in his home too. Perfect share for Memorial Day.

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your photos. Brought memories back. A few years ago we toured the battlefields during a visit to the area. It was overwhelmingly emotional, emotive and sad.

  9. This is a beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing about your very special visit.

  10. What a touching post. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful tribute.

  11. What a moving tribute, Angela.
    So nice that you and Alex had a chance to go there and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and photos.

    You made my Memorial Day more special, thank you. Joanie

  12. Thank you for sharing this. It brought tears to my eyes.


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