Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cycling in Normandy #2 -- Utah Beach

Last week’s recap of our vacation began with a description of the Omaha Beach Memorial--the most memorable and solemn experience for me.  Coming in a close second was the Utah Beach D-day Museum and our visit to Sainte Marie du Mont. I have to agree with Rick Steves when he writes, “This is the best museum on the D-Day beaches...thorough yet manageable… [with] a series of fascinating exhibits and displays.”
As we cycled a pleasant ten mile route along the coast to reach the museum, we marveled at the stunning Channel view occasionally interrupted by the remains of German bunkers.  We wondered aloud what the lives of the Normans had been like during the occupation--a question answered for us when we toured the museum.

Like the Omaha Beach Memorial, this museum includes viewing rooms with films plus explanatory panels of photos, stories and quotes. Conceived in 1962 by the mayor of Sainte Marie du Mont, the museum has grown over the years, and its last expansion completed in 2011 added oral histories of American soldiers and Norman civilians alike, plus a B-26 Marauder and an original Higgins Boat landing craft.
We heard tales of the civilian population going hungry and secretly slaughtering dairy cows to feed their families and neighbors without the Germans knowing. “The founder of the Museum Michel de Vallavieille would recall, ‘We had a miserable life, a life that became increasingly harder and more miserable as time went by.’”
One story that caught our attention was that of Major David Dewhurst, an Army Air Force squad commander in World War II who flew bombing raids including the “final bombing run on the German stronghold WN5, moments before the Allied landing at Utah Beach,“ only to die in an auto wreck not long after returning home to Texas. I didn’t realize as I stood there, astonished at that turn of events, that his sons had only discovered their father’s story upon visiting Utah Beach in 2007 and seeing his name and photo.
From Utah Beach, we cycled past a statue of Major Dick Winters, whose story you may recall from Band of Brothers, and headed to Sainte Marie du Mont for coffee.  There we stumbled on a Museum housed in a small shop. The proprietor explained that his shop had been German Headquarters for four years and Allied Headquarters for six months. With his little bit of English, he showed us the rooms where the Germans had drawn pictures on the walls, and then he cranked up a German siren, giving me cold chills. If you’ve ever seen a WWII movie, you know the sound.
We wandered the town square reading plaques that described the exploits of the soldiers who liberated the town.  Paratrooper Ambrose Allie was about to be executed, when a US squad shot the Germans aiming at him. Another plaque told of a High Noon scenario in the square. Yet another described a soldier, seemingly older than most, who hid behind a water pump with his rifle cradled in the crook of his arm.  From there, he calmly picked off Germans as they ventured into the square.  We all imagined him as an old country boy who hunted back home.

It’s not the uniforms, guns, and other artifacts in the museums that bring the Normandy Invasion to life for me, but these personal stories. So many towns have memories to share, demonstrating that the people of Normandy have neither forgotten their WWII ordeal nor the debt they owe to the many who fought to free them.

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