May 25, 2015

The Courage of Normandy

I sit, warm and snug, on a chilly, rainy Memorial Day morning watching multiple episodes of a Band of Brothers marathon, again.  While living in Germany several years ago we knew well all the episodes of this series as well as other movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Battle of the Bulge. We watched them multiple times, and then we visited the sites.  Since we lived an hour from the French and a half hour from the Belgian borders, short drives to these sites were easy.  Today I watch and remember the villages portrayed in these movies and how we appreciated the landscapes we saw, often with 'noncooperative' weather.    We visited  the Normandy and Brittany regions of France just before our time expired and we headed back to the States.  I cannot tell you how my heart longed to stay and explore for a time, or a lifetime.  The shabby chic-ness of the countryside filled my heart to the brim as these tiny villages still look like what they did 70 years ago.

Our short time in Normandy was perhaps the most memorable time of our entire tour in Europe.  Armed with the name of a British innkeeper and locally famous historian who gave personal guided tours of the area, my family's excitement had been building for months.  We had gleefully 'reserved' this tour guide, and all were so excited that this walking wealth of world and local history was ours for an entire day.  What an unexpected treasure he was!  As we set out that morning,  he asked us what WWII movies we had seen. Based on what we knew about the area, he then tailored our journey to little known sites that tied in with various movie details. He showed us now crumbling buildings and thickly wooded meadows and told gripping stories about little known events on tiny side streets and out of the way villages surrounding these rolling hills.  The heroism and courage he shared of our Allied soldiers blew me away, and the truths we learned cannot be completely captured on a movie screen.   Somehow even now as I write, as the current mom of a 19-year-old son -- the age of many of these heroes at the time -- their stories emerge as even more incredible.

This day dawned windy and overcast with an ominous chill that we were told was typical for April.  The English Channel blew harsh winds onto the shoreline.  Omaha and Utah beaches didn't seem like vacation destinations.  They were too hallowed, and serene. Sacred.
We shivered as we breathed in the scene.

Here at Normandy, nearly 10,000 Americans were lost forever.  But eternally standing vigilant at the American cemetery, the sea of crosses remains, a testimony of sorts, to honor these 9,387 who willingly gave their lives to stop evil in its tracks. 

The German artillery outposts remain here as an outdoor museum.  They watch from high on the cliffs of Point du Hoc, and the public can climb over and through them. Once we  saw what Rudder's Rangers actually did that day, as German bullets flew, our mouths stood agape.  The sheer monumental mission of climbing those cliffs after coming across the Channel in boat after boat hit us hard.   Neither the cliffs, nor barbed wire, nor German bullets were able to stop them all.  On this day we were gifted with a moment to see with our own eyes how the whole endeavor played out logistically.  I wonder how many young men whispered the word "impossible" as their young eyes scaled those cliffs, before willing their bodies to do the same.

We visited several village churches within the small radius of the Normandy area.  Beginning on June 6 and the days following, these tiny buildings quickly became shelters for wounded.  After the war, their windows became stained glass memorials to the heroes who parachuted in to save their families and homeland.  As Americans, we laugh and make jokes about how quickly France fell to the Germans during this war.  But, we must remember that France had already lost most of their military fighting force in World War I.  The French lost a generation, quite literally,  in this earlier war.  They just didn't have the manpower to compete with Germany's might this time.

The villagers left blood stained pews in this church on purpose, again, in memoriam.  The American, British, and French blood shed here was not in vain.

This is the famous St. Mere Eglise where the parachuter was hung up on the roof of the church. You'll see the event in several movies.  Villagers here proudly display a mannequin and his parachute dangling in the same position to visually tell the story.

At the end of our day we found a restaurant on the beach that our tour guide had recommended.  Upon entering, a huge framed plaque greeted us with the story of the Battle of Normandy, and I dug deep into the recesses of my brain for my high school French lessons.  Buried within this frame was the 'rest of the story' about some of the heroes of those famous days, including famous Texas Aggie Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder.  It tells, in French, that he later wore the rank of Major General and upon retiring from the U.S. Army, continued on the become president of Texas A&M University.  Gig 'em!!!

St. James American cemetery sits just a few short miles from Normandy's beaches and literally a few moments from our own Gite, (bed and breakfast),  where another 4,410 are buried.

What would the world have been like today had these courageous and selfless young men not choked down the word 'impossible' as their eyes beheld those cliffs, or prepared to jump out of an airplane in utter darkness to an unknown future?  
We saw on this day where young brave souls gave all and saved the world.  On this day, our world changed.

How could anyone ever know of the price paid by soldiers in terror, agony and bloodshed if they'd never been to places like Normandy, Bastogne or Hagenau? - Band of Brothers

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