We drove through beautiful French countryside—old chateaus, farmland, castles, cows—that looked like every World War Two movie I’ve ever seen. We arrived at Omaha Beach, where Americans landed on D-Day. June 6, 1944.
The memorial, inside a building, had a video playing about what happened, facts on boards about how it happened, quotes from people who were there, artifacts, and bios. (I absolutely recommend seeing this if you’re in France.) One of the stories was about a twenty-six-year-old with a wife and three kids at home, another about a twenty-year-old who charged into a pillbox like a crazy man, another about a small town doctor who saved lives on the beach, another about a paratrooper who didn’t even get his parachute off before he was shot. All died. 8,996 more stories. The four Niland brothers—three believed killed and one brought home—were the premise for the film Saving Private Ryan. A woman’s voice reads the names one by one in an empty hallway.
World War Two feels far away. Seventy-one years ago is a lifetime. 9,000 white stone crosses and Stars of David for the men and four women who died there. Many more missing and presumed dead. The lawn is meticulously kept, the land is green and fertile, the trees are thick and full, and you can feel the sea breeze that moves among the leaves. It’s quiet here, and quietly beautiful. Paris is ostentatious in comparison—a different kind of man-made beauty. Here, a variety of birds are singing, flowers blooming, it’s calm. The whole place is peaceful. It’s difficult to imagine Army Rangers scaling cliffs, deafening artillery fire, storms of bullets, screams, and blood.
There’s an old pillbox still intact, and there’s a monument dedicated to a group of Army Engineers who destroyed some of the guns so that the ships could make it. In memoriam to our 80 brave comrades in arms of the 299th Combat Engineers who gave their lives on the beaches of France and on the Continent of Europe in World War 2. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget. The landscape has tried to forget. Covered in green, the foliage grows over the two meter-thick concrete bunker. Utah Beach wears the marks of war more obviously: craters as big as swimming pools made by constant Allied air-bombing and sea-shelling before the landing. Some of the bunkers were destroyed by the blasts, others damaged, others untouched.
I imagined looking out over that amazing beach, a place where people vacation, seeing England on the other side, and thinking about the best way to kill whoever arrives. Absolute madness. These were not hastily dug fox-holes—the Germans had four years to prepare for this attack with concrete and steel and heavy construction equipment.
I took pictures of crosses with “Massachusetts” written on them, and I imagined that war happening now, and how I could have been on a boat, landing on the shore. I can imagine that better now than I could a few years ago. To be twenty and fighting in a war and to die with dreams. I watched Fury, a film about a U.S. Sherman tank crew in Europe. One of the characters is transferred there from a journalism role, and he says, “I’m not supposed to be here, you don’t understand, I’m not supposed to be here!” I wonder if that’s how everyone felt—that everyone else belonged there but me. You don’t understand, I’m just a guy from a town back home.
The landing did not go as planned—the weather was terrible, the beach was more heavily defended than it was supposed to be, Allied intel wasn’t good, the obstructions took longer to clear than expected, only a fraction of the supplies that were intended got through. But they improvised and broke through.
Being at that cemetery, as an American, is a very proud and sobering experience. The guest book there is filled with names of people who write the state they come from, and “USA” in bold letters. The lady before me underlined USA twice.
There’s a chapel in the middle of the cemetery that has a sentence inscribed along the top. I forget all of it, except for the words “inherited freedom.” When you inherit something, you do nothing to deserve it—you were born at the right place at the right time, with the proper circumstances. I have inherited freedom from my grandparents and their generation. At dinner, my grandmother and grandfather always ends their prayers with: “…and God bless our boys overseas,” which I love because they’ve made a habit of remembering.
9,000 graves of men who were my age when they died, who were younger, who were married, who were dads. Some unrecognizable as they were buried, whose tombstones read: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” One of the videos included an interview with General Eisenhower—Ike—who was talking about the decision to attack. He said that he walked through a group of troops from the UK and US: “One of our boys said, ‘don’t worry General, we’ll take care of this for ya!’, and that made me feel good.” Lest we forget: these were not robots, not fictional characters, they were our boys.