I had the good fortune to help lead a 10-day tour of D-Day and Battle of the Bulge (and other historic) sites that was arranged by my friend Mark Chesney, owner of Travel Planners International of Marietta.
Many of those sites are household words to Americans today thanks to movies like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”
Yet as powerful as those depictions are, I can now attest that they cannot compare with actually standing on the bluffs at Omaha Beach, or looking up at the spires of the church in Ste. Mère Église on which our paratroopers were snagged, or walking through the evergreen forests in which much of the Battle of the Bulge was fought, or seeing the somber panorama of thousands of headstones in row upon row, as if on parade, in our military cemeteries over there.
Our itinerary included the strategic Pegasus Bridge, captured by British glider-borne troops before dawn on D-Day, and numerous sites connected with Utah Beach. Some of the most desperate fighting of D-Day took place not on the beaches but in the fields and hamlets two or three miles inland like Cauquigny and Brécourt Manor and involved scattered paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
The most compelling stop for this visitor was the medieval village church at tiny Angoville Au Plain, which was used by the paratroopers as a first-aid station treating the wounded of both sides and where bloodstained pews are still in use. A hole in the roof (now plugged) and a cracked floor stone are reminders of a German artillery shell that plunged into the church during the battle but fortunately failed to detonate. The ancient stained glass windows, destroyed during the battle, now have been replaced by several windows honoring the troopers of the 101st (many of whom who were trained in Toccoa).
Our visits were enhanced immensely by our guide, Marty Morgan, formerly of The National World War II Museum in New Orleans and The History Channel, a gifted story-teller who deftly brought to life the drama and heroism that had unfolded around us decades earlier.
Another highlight was the promontory Pointe du Hoc, where Army Rangers scaled steep cliffs and then overwhelmed the defenders. The Nazi blockhouses there suffered severe bombardment prior to the attack and huge chunks of concrete still strew the area — as do cavernous craters gouged by 14-inch shells fired by the battleships USS Texas and others. And hard though it may be to believe, those historic reminders are nearly overshadowed by the dramatic view of the sea from the cliff.
Next came several of the landing points at Omaha Beach, where the worst of the fighting took place. The beach obstacles and barbed wire are long gone, although a few German forts and artillery pieces remain. Overall, that stretch of coast is an odd blend of beach town and national park, with modern-day holiday cottages and yard ornaments lining the sand just steps from where our men crawled ashore.
Just uphill and a few steps inland from Omaha Beach is the Normandy American Cemetery, last resting place of 9,387 American troops, including Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (a Medal of Honor winner) and two of the Niland brothers, whose deaths in the battle inspired the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” On the Walls of the Missing are inscribed another 1,557 names of Americans whose bodies were never recovered. It is a beautifully kept — and stunningly somber — burial ground.
We also visited the German war cemetery in La Cambe, where 21,222 of that country’s dead from Normandy are buried. We found the U.S. war cemeteries, though solemn, to have an air of triumphalism. The German cemetery, by contrast, was darker and much more melancholy. And strangely, and unlike U.S. military cemeteries, it was constructed and is maintained via private donations, not government funds.
Next — We visit Verdun and the Battle of the Bulge.