Exploring the Site of WWIIs Most Important Battle in a Relative of the Machine that Helped Win the War
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Today Omaha Beach bears comparatively few scars of the momentous events of June 6, 1944. To most eyes, Colleville-sur-Mer, the town immediately inland from the beach, looks like the sleepy seaside village it is; and with the exception of an extraordinary number of monuments commemorating battles fought more than a half century ago, an occasional museum or souvenir shack, it is decidedly peaceful and tranquil.
But though Omaha Beach now is peacefulperhaps because of thatthe place conjures deep emotions. It is easy to look north, out over the English Channel, and suddenly its June 6, 1944, 58 years ago from the date on this issue of Four Wheeler. In your minds eye you see hundreds of war ships and landing craft approaching the beach through the early morning fog, images burned in our collective psyche. Looking back over our shoulder at the concrete-and-steel fortifications that still bear mute reminder of horror, of war, of cruelty, of tyranny, and of madness, its not hard to imagine the guns in those fortifications catching the GIs emerging from their landing crafts, some more than a hundred yards from the beach, in a murderous crossfirethousands of young lives snuffed out in a heartbeat. If you pause and listen closely, there is a ghostly reminder of something we couldnt have experienced, yet somehow still remember; your minds ear can hear bullets whizzing by and mortar shells exploding.
This is how it was for us. We were here, shortly after the events of September 11 once again turned our thoughts to madness and tyranny, to explore the Normandy battlefield in a Jeep Wrangler, a direct descendent of the jeep that helped our boys earn a victory in WWII. Pausing here, we allowed the salt spray from the English Channel to mix with the salt of tears that we couldnt keep from forming in our eyes. As we pondered the inscriptions on the monuments, we drove north along the beach road until we saw an opportunity to take our Wrangler down on the beach. Obviously, an opportunity that could not be passed up. No gates, no No Trespassing signs, just a clearing to the bleached tan surface of this sacred sand. As our Jeep left the pavement, it was not at all difficult to imagine it morphing from a black Wrangler into an olive-drab MB, the first in a long line of Jeep vehicles that are linked inexorably with battles from the beaches, hedgerows, fields, and orchards of Normandy to the islands and atolls of the South Pacific. In a way, we found ourselves reenacting the real tradition behind the Jeep legend.
Stepping from the Wrangler, the cool waves of the English Channel gently washing against our feet, we were walking through history: Breathing became more labored, our hearts beat a bit faster, and emotion welled up deep inside us.
Its hard not to wonder: What must it have been like to be some 20-year-old farm kid from Iowa, wading ashore, hitting the beach in full gear, wondering if this is where it all would end? Thank you, God, for such bravery. For this is indeed where so many GIs made the ultimate sacrifice. For others it was simply the start of an ordeal. If they survived this first phase, the continuing odyssey still might end in some hedgerow or orchardthe result of a snipers bullet fired by a marksman from the church tower that still stands in Colleville-sur-Mer; in some nameless town in the French countryside; in a cold and soggy forest; or on the Elbe River deep inside Germany. If our farm boy was lucky, he got a return ticket home to his family or wife, but he was forever changed by his experience.
There are hundreds of important battlefield sites here, denoted by blue historic markers that memorialize the sacrifices made by those who fought here. Many of them lie in the American Cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, the final resting place of 9,400 Americans and the site of a monument to 1,500 more listed as missing in action. It is a magnificent and powerful place. Headstones, simple white crosses, or Stars of David, most with a name and hometown (307 lack a name and are identified simply as a comrade in arms), make walking here a very powerful experience.
Less elaborate but in many ways no less moving is the German Cemetery at Le Cambe less than 10 kilometers away along highway N13 between Bayeux and Ste. Mère Église. It is a much less elaborate facility than its American counterpart but no less solemn, the final resting place of 21,000 German soldiers.
From Omaha Beach, we headed our Jeep to the town of Ste. Mère Église, where in the early morning hours of the attack, the silk canopy of paratrooper John Steele, part of an advance attack party, caught on the church tower. Today a mannequin paratrooper hangs there. It should be noted that Steele, although injured, survived his ordeal.
Although a great deal of attention is focused on the landing beaches facing the English Channel, there is much more to see in Normandyand more importantly, great places to stay. For about the same price as staying in a sterile Super 8 along an American interstate, for about 50 Euros ($45) one can stay in the restored 17th century Chateau de la Roque (www.chateau-de-la-roque.fr/uk/), with a gourmet breakfast included, about 10 minutes away from the previously mentioned German cemetery at Merigny.
Another favorite place to stay, especially if you explore the area to the south and west of the invasion beaches, is the Hotel Patton, operated by Christian Uhlig (www.brubers.com/citotel/ hotels/patton.html) in Avranches. Although there is no evidence that Patton stayed at this quaint hotel, Patton did set up his headquarters about 20 kilometers away at the Chateau de la Paluelle on a hilltop overlooking the town of Ste. James.
Avranches offers a great location for exploring, by Jeep or other vehicle, the jumping-off point for Pattons 3rd Army and its dash across France to the Saar River Valley.
If you want to duplicate Pattons dash across France, Avranches is a great place to start, as youll be able to follow the Road to Liberty all the way to Bastogne. Along the way youll pass through historic towns and cities like Le Mans, Chartes, Reims, and Verdun. The Road to Liberty Michelin map, available in travel stores, marks the route, starting from either Utah Beach or Ste. Mère Église.
Bastogne, the end of the route, was the forward Allied position on the eve of the start of the German Ardennes offensive, best known as the Battle of the Bulge (see Jeeping the Bulge, Feb. 02), commencing in the early morning hours of December 16, 1944. Although most of our travels covered sites of interest to Americans, thats only part of the Normandy story. While Americans hit the Omaha and Utah beach heads, British, Canadian, Free French, and forces from other occupied nations hit the eastern beaches of Juno, Gold, and Sword. In addition, before dawn, British paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division dropped in behind the beaches, securing several strategic objectives. One of the best known of these is Pegasus Bridge. The Café Gondrée at the Pegasus Bridge became the first building liberated in France on D-Day.
During our visit, members of the British 6th Airborne Division, sporting their maroon berets, were enjoying a luncheon reunion at the Café Gondrée. They were being hosted by Madame Arlette Pritchett-Gondrée, whose parents, George and Thérèse, owned the cafe on the day of its liberation. Most of these heroes of D-Day, now well into their 70s, were enjoying themselves, swapping stories about what was the most important day of their lives. Their stories were not dimmed at all by the passage of almost 60 years, and thats as it should be. The spirit and values they fought and died for havent dimmed. With warriors like them, and like those currently supporting our newest war, they never will.