Photo provided
The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
Photo provided The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
While World War II was a necessary task for Americans, my visit today to the D-Day beaches in Normandy illustrates the waste exacted by war.
The American cemetery on the bluff overlooking Bloody Omaha Beach is a rare place that compels one to walk and talk softly in respect for those buried under 9,385 white, marble Latin crosses and Stars of David laid out in precise rows on 177 acres of France deeded to the United States.
When the second American flag is lowered in the cemetery at 4:05 p.m. to the sound of Taps, one feels a melancholy well up for all those who died to break through the Atlantic Wall built by Gen. Erwin Rommel of Germany.
According to our guide, Pierre-Samuel Natanson, the average age of those buried in the national cemetery is 23 years old. As part of our National World War II Museum tour: “Writing the War – Following the Footsteps of WWII Correspondents,” all the mothers in the tour laid a wreath at the cross of Roy Talhelm.
When Roy left the United States, his girlfriend was pregnant with his child. He was a member of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which parachuted into Normandy west of Utah Beach.
When Roy died – he was 17. He’d lied on his enlistment papers two years early – when he was 15. A complete life ahead of him, but ended on the battlefield. Those buried above Omaha Beach are only a fraction of the American dead as families had the option to have the remains of their loved ones returned home for burial.
All of those future lives – their loves, talents, maybe genius lost to the world.
All of the tour members were given a white rose to lay at the grave of our choice. I wondered aloud, “how do you choose which grave to recognize?”
“Someone from your state, suggested Mike Harmon, who lives in Santa Rosa, California. I considered his idea while I gazed across the perfectly manicured grounds where the monuments seem to line up in a row regardless of the direction you look.
I then came across one of the 300+ graves of unidentified soldiers. “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known only to God” is carved into the cross. That’s where my rose rests.
My traveling partner, Mike Bush, chose a Montana member of his father’s unit, which like Talhelm was the 101st Airborne.
Guide Natanson and tour historian Donald Miller led the group today out on the flat, firm sand of both American invasion beaches and the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, which was assaulted by the 2nd Rangers – the commandos of the U.S. Army.
Unless you’re an expert, I recommend one visit the battlefield with a guide. As a history fan, I know the details of the landings, but Pierre, who grew up in the French seaport of Cherbourg, and author Miller, whose next book will focus on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the capture of Vicksburg in the Civil War, taught me facts I never knew and pointed out machine gun emplacements I never would have seen.
Omaha Beach was where I wanted to be on this overcast Tuesday. It’s because that’s where retired New England press association executive director Morley Piper landed with the 29th or Blue-Gray Division on another overcast day on June 6, 1944.
I like to think the retired 90+ Morley is a friend. A classic gentleman and quick wit, he remains a mainstay at meetings of the Newspaper Association Managers as its secretary. If you ask about his health, he’s likely to respond, “I plan to live forever and so far, so good.”
Although he was wounded by shrapnel while fighting through the Norman hedgerows surrounding the invasion beaches, Morley’s enjoyed a long, productive life unlike those young Soldiers who fell in Normandy – among nearly 37,000 Allied ground troops.
A waste Ernie Pyle captured in a dispatch from the invasion site. He wrote:
“But there is another and more human litter. It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.
Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home …
The strong, swirling tides of the Normandy coastline shift the contours of the sandy Beach as they move in and out. They carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.”