Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Two Days At The Beach

The scenes could have been straight from any beach anywhere, especially the Jersey Shore.

There were families who were finishing their day trips. There was a group playing soccer. There were signs of picnics, and little kids digging in the sand, and dogs running into the water.

As TigerBlog said, it could have been any beach on any summer day. It wasn't, though.

This beach is like no other beach anywhere in the world.

This was Omaha Beach.

TigerBlog hasn't been touched by any place he's ever been to the way he was when he visited Normandy last week. The enormity of it all smashes you in the face from the first time you see any part of the region, understanding what went on there 75 years ago and how incredibly brave the people who made it happen were.

And after seeing the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where American paratroopers landed to secure the N13, the vital road out of Normandy that runs to Cherbourg, and then the simply jaw-dropping American cemetery, TB was confused, or concerned, or displeased by the fact that today Omaha Beach is just an ordinary public beach.

This is, after all, a beach where on June 6, 1944, more than 2,000 American soldiers died in a 12-hour span. And now it was just a public beach? At first, he didn't get it.

TigerBlog took the ferry across the Channel to Cherbourg and then headed towards the Normandy beaches, which he didn't realize would take him straight through Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Instead, he found himself driving right through the heart of the town, which, if you've seen "The Longest Day," you would recognize immediately.

Sainte-Mere-Eglise is the town where American paratroopers landed, falling in some cases directly on top of the German soldiers in the town square, the same town square, where on the rainy morning that TB was there, was home to a market that had fruit, bread, breakfast dishes, sausage sandwiches and any number of other things for sale. 

If you looked up to the church next to the square, you'd see what at first glance seemed like a construction project, with plastic tarp covering a scaffold. When you looked closer, you'd see that it was actually a parachute, with a statue of a soldier who hangs from the building. Again, if you saw "The Longest Day," then you remember that scene with Red Buttons.

TB spent two hours in the fascinating D-Day museum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and were it not for the places he'd be going later that day and then the next morning, those two hours by themselves would have been a completely chilling experience.

A few hours later, after the rain ended and the sun came out, he found himself walking on a beach, a quiet, peaceful beach, where he was one of maybe 10 people out there. He didn't realize it at the time, but that piece of beach was part of Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers landed, between Sword and Gold, where the British landed.

There are still, to this day, remains of German defense barriers visible in the water off the shore. Walking on that beach when it was so peaceful was downright eerie, considering what went on there.

After that it was off to Omaha Beach, but first to the American cemetery. This is the where, as he said, your jaw simply hits the ground.

To see row after row of crosses and Stars of David, stretching out as far as your eye can process, and to understand that these were all Americans who were killed in the earliest hours of the liberation of Europe, well, it simply takes your breath away. The people buried there were mostly 18-22 year olds, much like the people who compete at Princeton University these days.

TigerBlog tried to find some record of Princeton's participation on D-Day, to see if any Princetonians were among those who were buried in that cemetery. He found THIS STORY by Brett Tomlinson of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of D-Day this past June.

If you don't want to read through the whole story, there is this:
The Aug. 11, 1944, issue carried news of a casualty in the Normandy invasion: “On D-Day, June 6, 1st Lt. Jerry Schaefer [’40] was killed in action in France. Jerry was a member of an airborne artillery outfit and had previously seen action in Sicily and in the Allied landings in Italy. To his parents and to his widow, Mrs. Margaret Schaefer, we extend our sincere sympathy.” Schaefer is one of 355 alumni who died in the war. His place of death is listed as Sainte-Mère-Église, France, which is now home to the Airborne Museum, dedicated to the memory the U.S. Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. 

Three-hundred-fifty-five alums died in the war? TB wouldn't have guessed that.

He does know the story of Tyler Campbell, Class of 1943 and a member of the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame, who died in September of 1944 in Southern France. TB looked up the town where Campbell died and found that it was 200 miles away from where he was in Normandy.

The next day TB went to Ponte Du Hoc, a cliff halfway between Omaha and Utah Beaches. It was critically important that the Americans capture the cliff, since it offered access to both of those beaches and the troops off-shore. It's a cliff, 100 feet straight up, and 255 Army Rangers started out at the bottom. Only 90 of them made it to the top, the rest gunned down, or killed when the Germans cut their ropes as they advanced to the ridge.

When you spend time at these locations, you have to close your eyes and see it, hear it - and more than anything else, appreciate it. TigerBlog certainly did. The only other places he's ever been that can even remotely compare were the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and Gettysburg's battlefield.

And maybe that's why, at first, he was so taken aback at the thought of families who were enjoying Omaha Beach. It just didn't seem right to him.

Then, when he considered what it was that all those soldiers fought for and a lot of them died for, it came to him. It was all about giving back freedom to French families to enjoy that beach.

And suddenly he was okay with it.

It wasn't disrespectful to those who died there.

It was the whole point of it.

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