9/30/2017 Along the Path of Heroes Part 5: American and German Cemeteries in Normandy
American Cemetery Normandy
Times photos by Ron May
Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves Staue
Next Time: Battle of the Bulge: (Bastogne, Belgium)
Ronald P. May, USN (Ret.), is author of the book, "Our Service, Our Stories". He helps veterans share and preserve the stories of their military service. For more information or to tell your story, contact May at 317-435-7636 or by email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Facebook at Our Service, Our Stories.
In July of 2016 I joined a tour group and took an 11-day trip to Europe to tour World War 2 battle sites in France, Belgium and Germany - places that some of our Morgan County veterans once walked on or flew over. This series of articles is a summary of what I saw and learned there as I followed the path of American heroes who answered the call of duty to preserve freedom over 75 years ago.
Of the many fascinating World War 2 related places to see in Normandy, the one that moved me the most, was the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
Located on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, this sacred burial ground is the final resting spot for 9,387 American service members (which includes 4 women); most of whom were killed during the invasion at Normandy and the combat operations that followed.
On June 8th, 1944 the U.S. First Army had established a temporary burial ground for the dead just west of the cemetery's current location. It was the first American cemetery in Europe.
France later granted the U.S. a special concession to the land occupied by the present cemetery, free of charge or tax.
After a stop at the Normandy Visitors Center to see the exhibits and watch a film, our tour group walked along a paved path underneath a grove of trees to the beautiful 172-acre ground covered with lush green grass, tall well-pruned shrubbery and towering stately trees.
Myriad rows of bleach white marble crosses and stars of David marking the graves of the fallen heroes dominated the landscape. Each marker was aligned with the others in its row with exact precision.
Our group was quiet and reflective as we walked among the countless graves under heavy grey clouds and a falling drizzle that felt like tears from heaven.
Wherever we stood we were surrounded by the heroes who secured freedom for France and Europe with the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.
On each of the white crosses or stars were 3 rows of brief inscriptions containing the service member's Name, Military Unit, and Home State/Date of Death.
I came across the grave of Carl E. Drew, an Indiana soldier laid to rest at Plot C, Row 7, Grave 26. Drew was a Private First Class serving with the 325th Glider Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division. He had enlisted on November 14th, 1942. He died on July 3rd, 1944; almost one month after the invasion at Normandy.
There were some notable names among the graves. We saw the cross bearing the inscription of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt, who at the age of 56 led his men forward at Utah Beach and died a month later. He lies beside his younger brother, Quentin who had died in combat during World War I.
Roosevelt's cross and two others in the cemetery had inscriptions engraved in gold letters with a star on the top. These are the graves of the men who earned Medals of Honor - our nation's highest military recognition for acts of valor and bravery.
The crosses or stars that brought me the most sadness, however, were the ones that had no names on them. There are 307 nameless markers at Normandy. The people buried underneath them were unknown at the time of their deaths; their remains unable to be identified. Those grave markers simply bear the inscription: "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."
My sadness was lifted a bit when our tour guide, Rudy, told us accounts of the kind citizens of Normandy who had cared for the graves of American soldiers and took photos of the markers to send to families of the fallen back in the United States.
The east end of the cemetery is anchored by a semicircular colonnade memorial building opening up to a reflecting pool. In the middle of the memorial is a large, 22-foot high bronze statue of a young man who is rising up out from the water. It is entitled: The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. It pays tribute to America's best young men who had traveled over 4,000 miles from home only to die on foreign soil while fighting for its freedom.
Behind the memorial is a semicircular garden and wall called The Walls of the Missing. The large stone walls are engraved with the names of the 1,557 service members who were missing in action at the time of the memorial's construction; among them some of Indiana's sons. Rosettes appear over the names of those whose remains have since been recovered and identified.
There was one more cemetery on our travel itinerary through Normandy. It was the La Cambe German War Cemetery where 22,000 German soldiers are buried, among them 1,200 unidentified Germans.
Our walk among the enemy dead was surprisingly no less moving and its ground no less hallowed. These men, like their American counterparts, tragically sacrificed their youth and their futures, albeit in defeat and for a mad dictator who was bent on occupying most of Europe.
Here the markers of the dead are not white but a slate-grey. They are flush to the ground, not rising up from it as did the crosses and stars at the American Cemetery.
And here two men are buried under each marker. Their military units are not identified, nor their home of record. Only their names and dates of birth and death appear.
At the center of the burial ground is a tall mound called a tumulus, under which are 207 unknown and 89 identified German remains form a mass grave.
At the top of the tumulus are basalt lava statues of a man and a woman flanking a large cross. The man and the woman symbolize German parents whose sons died in battle. They perpetually stand guard and look with compassion over the dead Nazi soldiers who never made it home to Germany.
The statues of the German parents are a fitting symbol for every cemetery filled with dead service members. No matter the country or the cause, every soldier was a person of worth and every death a tragedy that is mourned by loved ones still today.
Note: The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The ABMC, a small independent agency within the U.S. Federal Government maintains 26 permanent American cemeteries on foreign soil. The U.S. flag flies proudly over each site.