Fortress Europa Day 6: Normandy

From yesterday: Today, we planned quite a day for ourselves, visiting Point Du Hoc, the American Cemetery at Normandy, and the German Cemetery. We left this morning at nine on a bus that took us to Point Du Hoc, a memorial for the American Rangers that climbed a cliff-face to remove an important German gun emplacement. The Germans moved the gun emplacement, but tricked American reconnaissance into thinking the artillery remained there, so Americans rappelled a steep cliff on the banks of the English Channel, only to find prepared German soldiers and no guns. The Rangers took heavy casualties, but killed the Germans in the area and held their position, unsupported, for two days. They began the mission with 250 special-unit combatants and ended the operation with only 90 men. The memorial stands on the edge of the beach and the actual monument looks extremely phallic, but the cool part was the pillboxes and other intact German defense bunkers we got to visit.

After that, we boarded our bus and headed over to Normandy beach, which is actually 25 kilometers away from Bayeaux. We ate lunch at a small cafe in the area, and I ordered a salad (je voudrais un salade vert) as I ate sumptuously at our banquet breakfast. Then, we embarked as a group and walked for a long while on the actual beach. Everyone took off their shoes and meandered the 5 kilometers to our end destination, the American Cemetery, as seen on “Saving Private Ryan.” The beach walk was great, but rather long, and the sun kissed my face passionately. The weather blessed us the entire day: extremely bright, around 55 degrees and the water broke blue and calm. A perfect day for an invasion.

The American Cemetery is something out of a cemetery designers dream. The iconic white marble crosses line up in perfect rows, casting uniform shadows across the perfectly spaced graves. Many used the word “immaculate” to describe the scene. The professors assigned each student a Texas veteran buried at the grave, gave us a rose, and we found their grave and honored it with the rose. I honored Manuel K. Gates, 22 years old and from somewhere in Texas. Normandy spoils us, as it gives great perspective on different forms of commemoration and cemetery design. Many of us, burdened with this knowledge, liked the British Cemetery in Normandy more than the manicured American Cemetery. We found the American Cemetery too tourist-oriented and veneered; it seemed that the US government overshadowed the dead with their obsessive maintenance. Can I say it was too beautiful?

At this time, it was 4:30 or so, and we had already walked more than 4 miles in the bright sun. Still, after we toured the Visitor’s Center/museum at the Normandy Cemetery, we boarded the bus and took off towards the German cemetery. It resembled the British cemetery in that it was more quaint; in fact, a German youth group maintained and upkept it, which flabbergasted me. What American youth group runs a cemetery? It was a totally different idea of death though, and humility was the theme. Also, it had loud religious overtones, with giant black granite statues of Mary and Joseph, represented all the families the war destroyed. Small, chubby Saxon crosses marked the graves, over 21,000 dead in the cemetery, which was actually 1/3 of the land allotment of the American cemetery, which held only over 9,000 dead. The museum was smaller and under-funded, but in my opinion it respected and honored its soldiers more than the American cemetery, which seemed the like the chain-restaurant version of a cemetery.

We got back on the bus and finally drove home, all of us red in the face and dogged. We came back around 6:30 and began to prepare dinner, which we didn’t finish till 10:00. Late in the evening we ate, and the professors joined us because it was Mother’s Day and we wanted to honor them and share stories. While some cooked dinner, everyone else read, slept, danced to music, or talked. The chillest night so far, and the dinner was the best of the homemade ones we’ve eaten, so I’m a happy camper.

Fortress Europa Day 6: Normandy