Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cycling in Normandy #1 -- Omaha Beach


Where to begin? Our cycling trip in Normandy was amazing in so many ways: the cycling, the churches, the countryside and the four C’s—Calvados, Camembert, cider and crème. Our goal in choosing a Normandy cycling tour was to see the awe-inspiring WWII museums and monuments as part of our annual cycling vacation. It will take several posts to do justice to those sites as well as the commemorative displays we found in the towns along our route. I came away wishing every American could experience Normandy and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to turn the tide in WWII and to defend the freedoms we quite often take for granted.
 
Perhaps the most striking site is The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach, comprised of several sections, each of which leaves an indelible impression. First, the Visitor Center, as the brochure describes, “depicts the significance and meaning of Operation OVERLORD and honors the values and sacrifices of the World War II generation.”

 I was drawn to a panel quoting Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, a title I recognized from my childhood.  Who knew he was also a French aristocrat and aviator? For me, this excerpt from his Letter to an American simply and eloquently captures the spirit of America and expresses the sentiment we experienced in the small Norman towns we visited during our trip.

…American mothers did not give their sons for the pursuit of material aims. Nor did these boys accept the idea of risking their lives for such material aims. I know - and will later tell my countrymen - that it was a spiritual crusade that led you into the war. 

If the American soldiers had been sent to war merely in order to protect American interests, their propaganda would have insisted heavily on your oil wells, your rubber plantations, your threatened commercial markets. But such subjects were hardly mentioned. If war propaganda stressed other things, it was because your soldiers wanted to hear about other things. And what were they told to justify the sacrifice of their lives in their own eyes? They were told of the hostages hanged in Poland, the hostages shot in France. They were told of a new form of slavery that threatened to stifle part of humanity. Propaganda spoke to them not about themselves, but about others. They were made to feel solidarity with all humanity. The fifty thousand soldiers of this convoy were going to war, not for the citizens of the United States, but for man, for human respect, for man's freedom and greatness…How could I forget the great cause for which the American people fought? 

Outside the Visitor Center, the Overlook provides a view of the beach and the English Channel.  Gazing at that peaceful scene and replaying in my mind the horrific invasion images I’ve seen through the years was almost surreal.  Next came the Memorial with its statue, “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” What a fitting image to honor those men, many of them not yet 20 years old, who gave their all in the Normandy Campaign.  This is the gateway to the Garden of the Missing where the semi-circular wall is engraved with over 1,500 names of those missing in action. 

Finally, we began our walk through the cemetery of 9,387 graves, where I was awestruck as I looked out at row upon row of headstones. Hearing our guide speak about just a handful of individuals brought home the reality of lives cut short. Each Cross and Star of David has a story to tell. 

It seems appropriate that we visited Omaha Beach on the final day of our tour to reflect solemnly on the debt we owe these brave men and women and to consider what the world would be like today if not for them. This quote from the Garden of the Missing says it all: 

To these we owe the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live.