Monday, April 6, 2009

Day 4- Storming the Beaches

7am: Pierre and I wake up.  I head inside and eat two eggs over easy with some ham.  Pierre finishes his shower, we grab some fruit, and we are off; to Normandy.  The drive took us about 3 hrs to get to the beach, including one pit stop. 

On our way there, the weather was nice as we left Paris.  It was very promising for most of the ride.  It was beautiful to see the French country side bathed in sunlight.  The country is all farmland, like driving through Argyle or Harford, NY.  However, as we got closer to Caen, the weather got worse.  It became very foggy, but, that was expected because we were getting closer to the ocean.  I was okay with the weather because that would make the visit seem more realistic.

The first stop was Juno beach, which was dedicated to the Canadians because they took that beach.  There was a Canadian tank on display that had actually landed on the beach on D-Day and was knocked out of service.  The beach was rather unimpressive.  After a couple minutes we were anxious to move on towards Omaha.

Juno Beach.

Arromanches.  You can see the remnants of “Port Winston”, an artificial harbor 

The drive to Omaha took another 30 minutes or so.  I didn’t realize the beaches were as spread out as they are.  The small towns we drove through to go from beach to beach were amazing.  95% of the buildings are original.  You can tell that they have been through a fight.  It was intriguing knowing that, at some point many years ago, American soldiers walked the same streets and liberated each town, house by house.  Most buildings looked very weathered, and not in a natural way.   In some, you can see bullet holes.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to spend exploring the countless towns.  One could easily spend days going from village to village and discovering all the unique liberation stories. 

It was too easy to picture German MG-42 squads waiting in any window/alley of the small towns to ambush the American soldiers.  You know that each village had to be liberated and you can see how hard that task is as you drive through these towns.  Their layout is windy and very close quartered.  Directly across the street from these little towns are huge green fields, just like are displayed in the movies/videogames. 

Originally, I thought the trees/bushes/downed trees and ditches are made in the videogames so that they would be more fun to play.  Not the case at all. Just like in the games, each field is distinctly bordered by tree /brush lines or small rock walls.  Some even had debris in the field.  In fact, there was one place in particular (besides the beaches) that I know I played in Brothers in Arms (a game that supposedly recreates the battle fields).  It was easy to imagine the skirmishes that must have broken out in these towns/fields.  You could picture gliders landing in any of them, or soldiers walking through them.  It was really cool.

Finally, we made our way to my number one destination; Omaha Beach.  At this point, the sun had come out and was shining brightly.  After parking, we walked in and went straight to the cemetery.  Wow.  All those graves…The cemetery is gorgeous and tear jerking.  We walked through the entire cemetary, paying our respects.  I didn’t know this, but, the cemetery lies directly above Omaha beach.  It offers a great view of the beach.  Then we headed down to the beach.

The first thing you see when entering the cemetary.  

A list of names of the soldiers burriend in the cemetary.
Standing next to the American Flag.
Cemetary with Omaha Beach in the background.
Picture of Pointe du Hoc in the background from the cemetary.
The trail from the cemetary down to the beach.
Halfway down the trail, looking up.

And it was a long, long, way down to the beach.  If it wasn’t for the nice trail, it would have taken a while just to get down.  (It was probably as steep and large a hill as Dynamite Hill, where we used to go sledding.)  Off the trail, the hill was covered in vegetation; real thick and tall brush, like a jungle.  This was not how I imagined it.  I thought it would be covered in long green grass, like in the movies. 

Once we got to the bottom we walked on the beach for a while.  The beach itself is huge.  It was low tide when we were there, just like when the landings began on D-Day.  Soldiers had to cover hundreds of yards of sandy beach, all while running low with a 50lb backpack on and getting shot at from all angles.  It was amazing anyone survived.  Then, they had to climb up a huge steep hill; one that took Pierre and I a good 5min to climb up and we were walking up a trail with nothing on our backs and no one shooting at us.  That is one thing Pierre and I commented on.  We couldn’t figure out how the Germans lost.  They had such a stronger position.  The forces and obstacles that the American’s had to overcome are even more apparent to me now. 

At the end of the trail, finally at the beach.

Standing in the middle of the beach.

From the middle of the beach looking toward the cemetary.  

For comparison.  

Nearly all the remnants of June 6th have been removed.  Even the huge concrete bunkers have been removed.  I believe that this was done to create a peaceful atmosphere for the American Cemetery.  It wouldn’t be right if those horrid war symbols remained in such a sacred, peaceful place as the cemetery.  As a result of removing the bunkers, it felt like something was missing as you looked onto the hill from the beach.  In other words, it was tough to get a realistic picture of what the American soldier’s saw when their landing craft gate dropped.

After taking our time at Omaha, it was off to Pointe du Hoc.  The trip took about 15 min by car, again, through the classic Normandy landscape.  Upon entering the cliff top from the parking lot, the first thing you realize is the terrain.  It is full of huge craters; some about 50 ft in diameter and 25 ft deep.  They are everywhere.  All the bunkers remain, some in better condition than others.  It was really cool to finally see some real bunkers.

Entering Pointe du Hoc.

Random man in a big crater.

Inside a bunker.  Where the German guns were supposed to be.
View from the top of the cliff.
Underground bunker.
Inside an underground bunker.

It was surprising.  You know that there were some close quarter firefights in those bunkers.  Wow.  There are also countless other underground tunnels and stuff for exploring.  However, you’re never allowed to get too close to the cliffs so you can’t ever see directly down, but, you can see the steepness of the cliffs when you look to either side at the cliffs in the distance.  Again, Pierre and I were amazed that the American’s were able to capture the area.  The German’s had such a better position.

After a couple hours at Normandy, it was back in the car for Mont Saint Michel.  

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