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Hallowed Ground

A visit to Normandy, France,
sheds light on great sacrifice

Museums, many monuments greet visitors at Normandy


(March 2016) – My wife, Rachel, and I earlier in the year were discussing where to spend an overseas vacation. Together we went back and forth on a couple of ideas. I had just recently read the books “D-Day” and “The Dead and Those About to Die.” After reading the books and watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan” for about the 50th time, France became my vote. I wanted to set foot on the beaches to honor those that fought and died for us on June 6, 1944. I also wanted to see the vantage point from the sea toward land and to see what obstacles our men had to overcome.

Photo by Doug Jansen

Omaha Beach at Normandy saw much of the action during D-Day. Today, it is a tranquil shrine to the fallen.

Of course, what I saw was completely different from that day and the days in June 1944. I cannot imagine what was going through the minds of these brave fellows – jumping off a Higgins boat, enemy firing upon you and nowhere to go but forward. No cover just straight ahead and uphill. Those were the days when “Men were Men.”
That was a time when pride meant something. No trophies for fourth place here, folks.
We flew into Paris, France, rented a car and drove to the Normandy coast. Our lodging was in the small town of Bayeux. Driving in Paris can be quite challenging, but once outside the city, things became less stressful. It was about a 2 1/2 hour drive to Bayeux from Paris. I would not recommend staying in Paris and making Normandy a day trip. We spent four days there and that was really not enough.
Our first day we were to meet the Bayeux Shuttle and tour the beaches of Utah, Pointe Du Hoc, and Omaha. We met up with our tour guide, Vincent, for the day and five other couples on the tour. Most of them were from the United States.
As the tour progressed, you could see how passionate Vincent was about his job. His father served in the French military, as did he. He spoke with great appreciation to this day of how thankful the French people are to the Allies who liberated their country. Everywhere you looked, 71 years later, the flags from the USA, Canada, UK, and France still fly together. He talked about how they still uncover bodies of soldiers in fields and places where new construction starts.

Photo by Doug Jansen

This unique monument is situated at Juno Beach, part of the tour of the Normandy battlefield memorial tour. The Canadians took Juno Beach during the battle.

Our first stop was a German cemetery. Walking through it had an eerie feeling. You couldn’t help but notice the ages of the dead. Most were kids, very young men ages 17 to early 20s. They were basically the same ages as our men. They say, “Old men start wars, young men fight them.” What a shame, what a waste.
We loaded up and headed for Sainte Mere Eglise, which means the Church of Saint Mary. If you have ever seen the movie “The Longest Day,” this is the church where Red Buttons got stuck on the church steeple. This town was a German stronghold and just one of the places our Army Airborne landed.
Back in the van we went, off to Utah beach. I don’t want to minimize anything, but one casualty is too many. Utah was met with less resistance from the enemy than Omaha or Pointe Du Hoc. Far fewer casualties here. Still overcoming any resistance is very significant. One thing you don’t realize is how far the surf goes out at low tide. These guys were dropped off and had to proceed forward probably a quarter mile or more under heavy fire. It was either forward or drown. The tide is coming in the whole time while all this going on.

Photo by Doug Jansen

Utah Beach is pictured above where the survival rate was 90 percent, as compared to Omaha Beach, where the death rate was 90 percent.

The next stop was Point Du Hoc. Enemy positions were placed at the top off a steep bluff. This location was marred with craters that are still visible today from allied bombings. In order to take this position, the Army Rangers were called to take this area. Once dropped off at the beachhead, the men had to scale up a vertical wall.  They accomplished this under heavy fire and heavy casualties. They were able to succeed because of a will to live, and freedom.
Our last stop of the day was Omaha Beach. Keep in mind this is about an eight-hour tour. There are museums at each site, and we were unable to visit the museums because of time. Omaha was the beach met with the most enemy resistance. They say the survival rate on Utah was 90 percent. The death rate on Omaha was 90 percent. Again, with a will to live and a will for freedom, this beach was also taken. Keep in mind that U.S. forces took Utah, Pointe Du Hoc and Omaha. The British took Gold and Sword; the Canadians took Juno. Also included in the assault were several battalions of French soldiers.
We visited the American cemetery last. Once off the van, a heavy feeling came over me. I was trying to keep from breaking down. This place is very sacred, hallowed ground. It is meticulously maintained, as it should be.

Photo by Doug Jansen

Pictured above are scenes from a visit to Sword Beach (left) and Gold Beach (right). All of the Normandy sites also offer museums for visitors.

I really believe you could spend a full week on the Normandy coast to see everything. This little article does not even scratch the surface of the history or the sacrifices that happened – not only in Normandy but all over Europe and the South Pacific. Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East. No war is minimal; they have great sacrifice.
I was never in military service, but I commend anyone who has or is. I and we as Americans should uphold you with the utmost respect. Thank you.
If anyone plans on visiting Paris or Normandy, I would highly recommend reading the books or book I mentioned earlier. It gives a much better perspective when you visit. The tour group we used was Bayeux Shuttle, which can be found online at www.BayeuxShuttle.com.
If you ever decide to take such a tour of such a hallowed place where so many sacrificed and died for freedom, it can really put things into perspective.

• Doug Jansen is a Louisville, Ky., native who now resides in Boca Raton, Fla. He wrote this column for the RoundAbout. Email him at: DJansen1222@gmail.com.

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