Monday, July 10, 2006

D-Day

Day three in Bayeux was by far the most fun, most interesting and most emotional. I had signed up for a guided tour of the German cemetery Le Cambe, Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach and the American cemetery Coville-sur Mer, so I could easily get between the sites and hear a bit of the history of the area. After filling the van with 2 Frenchmen, a lady from New Jersey, a father and teenage son from Washington State and a father and daughter from Florida and Texas, we headed to the German cemetery.

Almost 20,000 German soldiers are buried at Le Cambe, two together in a grave. Each grave has a marker but there are also dark stone crosses throughout the cemetery. Anywhere where you can see that the crosses form a standard configuration five (like on dice) there are 400 German soldiers buried. Walking through the cemetery brought me to tears. Regardless of the side a solider fought on, the cemetery was a tangible reminder of the human toll of war. The loss of a child or parent must be excruciating, regardless of the circumstances under which the person was lost. I was also struck by the general darkness of the area, in contrast to the pictures I had seen of the American cemetery with its thousands of white crosses. Interestingly, I also learned that there is a German cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee for the Germans who were taken to the States as POWs and later died.

Our guide Olivier told us an interesting WWII story that got me thinking about Guantanamo. He said an American who once took the tour had a German father and American mother. They met after the father was released from a POW camp in the States and decided to stay. The father once told his son that being a POW in the US was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Of course most of those at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst. But I wonder if our situation would be different today had some of those taken POW in Afghanistan been mainstreamed into American society. I know that culturally there are many more differences between the US and Afghanistan than the US and Germany, but I think it is an interesting “what if” to ponder anyway.










Stop number two was Point du Hoc, where 225 US Army Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs to take out the German guns capable of shooting miles in either direction up and down the beach. The area had been heavily bombed before the rangers arrived, leaving the land heavily pot-holed. As we walked around it was hard to imagine being able to maneuver around the land during combat with the terrain being so rough. By the time the rangers were given backup, two days into the fighting, only 90 of the original 225 were still alive. As we were looking at the cliffs, the rainy weather started to clear, leaving us with dramatic skies and even a rainbow!



Omaha Beach was our third stop. It was on this 5-mile stretch of coast that 34,000 American soldiers landed and attacked the Germans who had been left to defend the coast. The better soldiers had been sent north because the Allies had deceived the Germans into believing that they were readying troops and supplies for an invasion near Calais. The coastline is now dotted with creperies and inns, but to see how large the beach is and the terrain that the men and later tanks and equipment had to forge through was amazing.

Our final stop was the American cemetery. Around 9,000 soldiers are buried there, in graves marked with either a white marble cross or Star of David, all facing west towards home. Walking through the gravestones here was extremely emotional for me. On the one hand I cried for the loss of life and the madness of war. On the other hand I cried knowing that young men were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for my country and so others who they would never meet could life in freedom. For that I am proud to be an American.

After leaving the cemetery, the day turned markedly lighter. I visited the Bayeux tapestry, which tells the story of William the Conqueror on a 70-meter long tapestry created around 1066. The detail in the tapestry is amazing, especially when you consider when it was made. I can imagine it was the talk of the town when it first appeared in the cathedral! I then walked around town a bit more, and just happened to run into Bill and Kate, the father and daughter from my tour. They invited me to dinner, so we made plans to meet up later in the evening and go to a place where Bill had found good spaghetti earlier in the trip. They had been a riot earlier in the day because as soon as Bill realized that I was 26 and not 16, he wanted to set me up with his grandson who lives in Washington and Kate kept apologizing for her father’s forwardness. (As I later found out, the grandson has a girlfriend, but Bill is looking for other options:-)) I met them for drinks at their hotel, where Bill gave his famous toast to Adam and Eve and then we went to dinner. Dinner was fascinating! At 87, Bill is as sharp as a tack and told stories about working on a meteorology plane over the Gobi dessert during WWII. Kate, a Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom veteran, also had lots of stories to tell about the trips that the two have been on as father and daughter and about all the interesting people they have met along the way.



Kate and Bill were on my train back to Paris the next morning, so I split a cab to airport with them, chatted some more and then bid them adieu!

So that was my trip—new sights, new friends, new thoughts... a blast!

3 Comments:

At 3:02 AM, Anonymous Rainer said...

Hi Erin!

You took very impressive pictures in France. Please keep on writing your interesting articles! But there is one statement I was thinking about:

> On the other hand I cried knowing
> that young men were willing to make
> the ultimate sacrifice for my
> country and so others who they would
> never meet could life in freedom.

I am not sure about this. Maybe they didn't want "to make the ultimate sacrifice" for their country, but were forced to do so? I think the german soldiers were also said to fight with noble objectives. I would prefer to understand the cemetaries in the Normandie as a symbol for the general senselessness of war for the "normal" soldier.

Regards,
Rainer

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Erin said...

From a certain perspective, I can understand why you would question my comment. And at one level I think you are right on the money: the cemeteries are a symbol of the senselessness of war. I hope that my comments about the German cemetery and my comment just before the part you quoted allude to that. There is an extremely tragic aspect of war at the human level.

But as for my other statement that got you thinking, here are my thoughts.

I stand by the comment firstly, because US soldiers weren’t drafted/forced into war. Did the US government encourage people to join? Sure. Did the advertisements play on US patriotism? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, a man enlisted and in doing so knew that death was an option. Of course no one wants to die, but signing up means an acknowledgement of the possibility. And not everyone could or wanted to sign on the dotted line.

Secondly, with regard to noble objectives, I acknowledge that war is complicated. Were American objectives 100% altruistic? No. I am also sure there were things that US soldiers did that were less than honorable, and for those actions I offer no excuse. I also acknowledge that there was a spectrum of soldiers on the German side—from men (and children) forced to serve, to those who were swept up in a wave of nationalism, to those who understood the larger picture of Germany's actions. But simply put, trying to control Europe and “free” Europe of Jewish people was wrong. Trying to free Europe and free those persecuted under Nazi fascism was right. What was the alternative? And so I salute any WWII soldier, though scared and hoping to survive the day, was willing to get on the boat of June 6, 1944 and fight for US objectives.

This was probably more of an answer than you wanted, but your comment really got me
thinking:-) As I final thought, I am thankful that we are both free to disagree on the exact meaning of such a cemetery.

 
At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written Erin. Yes, war is senseless, but it appears, sometimes necessary.

I wanted to comment on your statement, "[o]f course most of those at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst." We actually do not know that because those at Guantanamo have not been charged with crimes or subsequently been provided the opportunity to present their case, be represented by attorneys, cross examine adverse witnesses, present evidence, or have a hearing before an impartial decision-maker. I am by no means a Geneva scholar, but now that the Bush Administration has woken up and realized that the detainees are entitled to Geneva protections, let's allow them their due process before making generalizations about their guilt.

What happened on 9/11 was terrible, and future attacks must be prevented. However, the most effective way to do so is to make sure we lock up the CORRECT people. That can only be determined by allowing both sides to tell their story and not by randomly detaining people who look like they are terrorists or happen to be in the same place as the perpetrators.

Anuradha

 

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