One of the four brothers that died in Saving Private Ryan
Our experiences in Eastern and Western Europe have been full of emotional, historical remembrances. Exploring the Normandy area, the museums and D-Day beaches, and the American cemetery was undoubtedly one of those times.
So many amazing men and women were called to take brave chances and fight against, what seems to me the most clear cause for war in our history. Grandpa Hicks’ vast WW2 knowledge, as well as his memories of his own father’s stories of war in France at this time, were a tremendous blessing to us on this portion of the trip as well.
To imagine Churchill, Roosevelt, and even Stalin all working together is just mind blowing to me. These incredibly strong personalities were compelled to collaborate for the good of the world and trust each other as much as necessary to move forward.
And then the French Resistance, working under the radar in constant threat, to supply information to the Allies and corresponding in coded phrases. They sabotaged rail systems, destroyed electrical facilities, utilized delay tactics against enemy forces, and cut underground telephone and teleprinter cables – whatever it took to expel their occupiers.
Then you have Eisenhower and Montgomery – both brilliant military minds with ideas of their own, coordinating strategy. They were responsible for so many lives and were forced to make so many quick, impossible decisions. Thirty-nine Allied divisions would be committed to the Battle of Normandy: twenty-two American, twelve British, three Canadian, one Polish, and one French, totaling over a million troops – can you really imagine being in charge of this? And if anyone dropped the ball, down to your private first class, more people would die. Can you imagine this kind of pressure?
Then to make it a little harder, let’s throw in high winds and heavy seas to make landing impossible and low clouds to obscure the view of targets for aircraft. With just a brief window of barely adequate weather conditions, Eisenhower had to make a incredibly tough call – go or wait. But waiting would increase the risks that the German would get more information about the invasion and going forward could lead to more casualties.
Then you have Hitler’s Atlantic Wall along this region; covered with enormous concrete placed guns, mines, metal tripods, large anti-tank obstacles, wooden stakes, barbed wire, booby traps, and removal of all ground cover.
Then you get to spend your last minutes preparing your mind for battle, seasick and often vomiting from the harsh waves. How did the run forward against all odds? This quote was engraved on the wall in the museum: “Please God, don’t let me drown. Just let me do what I came here to do.”
The US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, over 13,000 men, also had an indescribable job of dropping behind enemy lines to do as much as they could to decrease the ability of the Germans to respond to the invasion.
This description of the paratroopers from war correspondent, Robert Barr, of the BBC caught my attention:
“Their faces were darkened with cocoa; sheathed knives were strapped to their ankles; tommy guns strapped to their waists; bandoliers and hand grenades, coils of rope, pick handles, spades, rubber dinghies hung around them, and a few personal oddments, like the lad who was taking a newspaper to read on the plane … There was an easy familiar touch about the way they were getting ready, as though they had done it often before. Well, yes, they had kitted up and climbed aboard often just like this – twenty, thirty, forty times some of them, but it had never been quite like this before. This was the first combat jump for every one of them.” Many died when their parachutes didn’t have time to open due to enemy fire, others drowned. Hedgerows, stone walls, and marshes made travel in the dark insanely treacherous, with only your 1 click kids’ toy to assure your fellow paratroopers you were not the enemy.
I think I was most in awe of the Army Rangers who fired rocket propelled grappling hooks to attach rope ladders on the cliffs at Pont du Hoc; and then scaled them while the Germans were well aware of their presence and taking them out as quickly as possible. They started out with 200 men and 135 of them were killed our wounded. Their odds were terrifying, yet they managed to achieve their goal and saved no telling how many from massacre on the beaches.
This was a great generation.
The part of these museums that draws me most are the personal words of actual participants. Interviews with men and women who were actually there and have lived a lifetime with the memories. I could listen and read their stories for hours. I wanted to share a few quotes with you from a few stories and interviews displayed in the many sights we explored:
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
“We will give birth to a feeling of gratitude in the hearts of men and women in every part of the world.”
-Sir Winston Churchill
“Hour trailed hour that morning as we dispatched successive waves of combatants, arms and war equipage to the Red Beach ….Even so I am able to recapture scattered fragments of images and sensations I had as we threaded our craft through the vast military spectacle. A nauseating mix of diesel fumes, gun smoke, and salt laden air made my breathing difficult. Deafening blasts of Allied artillery fire, thunderous sounds of on shore explosions, and plaintive whines of enemy retaliatory arms mullied my hearing. A multitude of unidentifiable rumbling, piercing, and hissing noises along with grinding, chugging, and splashing of amphibious craft; the unexpected, spasmodic detonations of concealed mines; the last gasps, or the eerie silence, of sinking vessels; and the cries for help of the wounded and drowning sounded and resounded in my ears.”
-Lieutenant Howard Van der Beek
“For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate…They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
“I started out to cross the beach with 35 men and only 6 got to the top, that’s all…” -2nd Lt. Bob Edlin, US Army, 2nd Ranger Infantry Battalion
“The Americans are the only ones in the streets of the town, there are no more Germans. It is an indescribable joy.” -Andre Mace, French Civilian
Our airbnb host also lost his father to the war at Saint Lo. When we left the region, he gave Darryl a french print that his mother had made to commemorate their shared experience. He was so warm and kind. They shared this with us on our departure:
“A privilege to welcome Alison and Chris and their two kids. Because they are always on their way of an outstanding trip around the world. And also because Chris’s father came over to us with his wife to visit the D-Day Beaches where his own father landed on June 15th 1944. Three generations to see where the most gigantic amphibious operation never launched took place and to celebrate the courage of a father a grandfather and a great-grandfather. So the family knew exactly what to do in the area and said having a nice stay in our cottage before leaving for le Mont-Saint-Michel. Useless to say our respectful have been our guests. I would have liked to discuss more with all the family on how they experienced all the countries and towns they visited. Just a dream….. ” “Your visit has been very moving to me. Impressed by your adventure and feeling you so relax and serene. Impressed by Chris’s father and your family story in Normandy more than 70 years ago. It was the first time a son of a Veteran gets in our cottage. It is unforgettable. As I said I would have liked to share more about your world experience. But I think all the people you met up have the same idea…. Thank you again for your stay and looking forward to getting news from you. Pascal and Claire ”
Although we only met Claire briefly, Pascal was a joy to interact with and we were so happy to have stayed with them.