Seventy years ago this week, we had survived the Normandy invasion, principally Omaha Beach. The Allies had triumphed the Nazis in the fiercest of landings on the shores of France’s beaches. We had a toe-hold on the continent, but the incumbent Germans were resisting mightily and were determined to push us back into the sea.
Having slept through the invasion, Chancellor Adolph Hitler was now convinced that Normandy was not the feint he had insisted it to be and realized there would be no larger scale crossing at Calais, 200 miles to the north. While I am merely an enthusiast and not a historian when it comes to World War II, I have concluded after several trips to Normandy and a serious familiarity with many books about the war that Hitler’s micromanaging of the war turned out to be our greatest asset. He was a sickened and demented fool.
Every American should take the opportunity to visit our cemetery at Collevile-sur-mer. You will undoubtedly become emotionally overwhelmed with the 172 acres of tombstones where 9,387 young American men gave their lives in the summer of 1944. It is the most beautiful cemetery you will ever see. Rows of white tombstones (Latin crosses and stars of David) in perfect alignment, bearing the name and rank of each person, most of whom died on the beaches of Normandy.
If you want to find the marker of a relative or friend, you can go to the cemetery office and obtain the information needed. There is a museum with a library and an auditorium where movies about D-Day are shown to visitors. What is most interesting about a trip to the cemetery is the great number of Frenchmen who visit the cemetery on weekends and holidays. I was there a few summers ago on the Fourth of July, which happened to be a Sunday, and I would estimate that there were several hundred French families moving respectfully about the cemetery. This leads me to reiterate that, no matter what you hear, the French do not have hardened antipathy for Americans. How that notion — which persists today with many people, mostly those who have never been to France — got legs is a mystery to me.
A French friend in Paris says it best: “If we are going to talk politics, we are not going to enjoy dinner.” Decisions made by governments doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends with those in the street. Governments, whether decisions be internal or international, sometimes resort to strange things. If the French prime minister takes our government to task, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a bottle of Montrachet with my French friends, especially if I am a guest. Of course, when you visit Normandy, you must sip a glass of Calvados, the French brandy that is distilled from the abundant apples that grow there.
As I reflect, I can see in my mind’s eye the villages and memorials from Arromanches to St. Mère Église — Pegasus Bridge, Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Utah Beach — only a few of the dozens of places you want to visit if you are in Normandy.
At La Cambe, you will find the Germany cemetery where more than 21,000 Germans are buried. After the war, the cemetery was not given much thought. Germany was too broke to memorialize their dead properly; the Allies were without sympathy for the German next of kin. Yet, at the museum at La Cambe, you will find the most eloquent arguments about the foolishness and stupidity of war.
Out in the cemetery among the markers in the starkness of the cemetery, a German girl once left this poignant note to the father she never knew. It is obvious that while her father was on leave home, before the war, her mother became pregnant, which led to this cryptic note by her father’s marker. “Even after my third trip here, I still cannot meet you. How many more daughters will never know their fathers because of war.”