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Not a dry eye: a visit to Normandy

Mention the word Normandy to most Americans, and they instantly think of D-Day. This momentous struggle that took place more than 65 years ago has left an indelible mark on the region. Concrete bunkers, war memorials and cross-filled cemeteries litter the countryside.

Everybody in my group is eager to see Omaha Beach, but I leave that for last and allow the suspense to build. I start our day with a stop at the German Military Cemetery at La Cambe. Originally an American burial ground established in the first days of the invasion, it was a holding place for those killed in action from every side. War is a messy business, and somebody has to clean up afterwards. That's an aspect few have even considered. La Cambe became the German cemetery after the war, when the American bodies were relocated to the American Cemetery at Colleville.

Small black crosses huddle together in groups, while flat stones mark the grave sites, usually with two soldiers per grave. In all, more than 21,000 German soldiers found their final resting place here. The number of unknown soldiers makes clear just how hectic and disorganized the German retreat was, as they seldom had time to bury their dead. Open remains and hastily dug graves in the fields just inland from the beaches continue to be found to this day, the most recent in April 2009.

While Hollywood has done a good job of portraying the German soldier as a ruthless killer, the very personification of evil, the truth is often more difficult. Take Rifleman Walter Kus here. I don't know Walter's story, but I can read the dates of his birth and death (written European style -- DD.MM.YY). Born July 30, 1926. Died July 29, 1944

As the Soviets pushed forward on the Eastern Front, grinding German soldiers into the snow and mud, Germany became increasingly desperate for new recruits. They stretched the age limits on both the high and low ends, pulling fathers out of homes and kids out of what little school was left. Many of the soldiers posted here, on the Atlantic Wall at Normandy, were raw recruits with little or no real military training. I can imagine that Walter Kus, on the day before his 18th birthday, would have rather been just about any where else.

From the German Cemetery at La Cambe we move just a few miles down the road to the Pointe du Hoc. This scarred piece of land, situated on a point of land between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, has been left essentially as it looked after June 8, 1944. The terrain rolls and bucks with huge bomb craters. Several concrete bunkers are still intact.

A critical observation and defensive position for the Germans, the Pointe was subjected to heavy aerial bombing in the days before the invasion, yet intelligence suggested that the bunkers were too strong to have been completely destroyed. The guns of the Pointe du Hoc, sitting on a cliff hundreds of feet above the beach and capable of wreaking havoc on both Utah and Omaha, would need to taken by ground assault.

Capturing the Pointe, and taking out the German heavy artillery placed there, became the special mission of 225 American Rangers. Using medieval siege tactics -- rope, grappling hooks and ladders -- the Rangers assaulted the cliff under enemy fire just prior to the main landings. The 225 Rangers suffered 135 casualties before securing the cliff top. When the Pointe was finally captured, the Rangers discovered that the big guns had been moved inland several days earlier to protect them from the bombing.

A few miles down the road from Pointe du Hoc we come to a wide gully, where a modern paved road makes it easy for us to access a beach that 65 years ago was so difficult, a beach thousands of Americans fought and died to secure. After leaving the group a little time to walk and reflect on the beach, we head up for our last stop of the day, the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

American Cemetery, Colleville

Situated on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery is located on the site of the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery. Established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944, this was the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II. After the war, this land was given by France to the US as sovereign territory.

Covering more than 170 acres, the cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom lost their lives between June 6 and August 20, 1944. Inscribed on a wall are the names of 1,557 soldiers who were never found. While the sight of 10,000 crosses and stars of David is overwhelming, it’s important to realize that they represent less than 25% of those Americans who died here. Only those who’s families requested that their remains be buried at Omaha Beach are here, the rest were returned to the US for burial.

My tour group members return to the van wiping their eyes. Young and old, male and female, interested in military history or not, no one leaves Colleville unmoved. The ride home to the hotel is always quiet.

Remembering D-Day

This afternoon I'm boarding a plane for London, getting ready for my next round of tours. Looking at the date on my tickets, I realized that today is another famous date in history: today is June 6, the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This video is a beautifully done look at the course of the invasion, with images that mix historic footage with modern looks at many of the memorials, museums and other sights of Normandy today. Once you click on the English version and are taken to the "movie theater," it takes a few minutes for the video to load and start playing, so if you just get a little black screen -- be patient, it'll start up eventually.

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