A few contrails and wispy clouds were all I could see looking up at an impossibly blue sky. Simply a perfect day to walk the water line and gaze at the white cliffs that shot straight up, hundreds of feet toward the heavens, from the shallow beachhead. I watched as a young girl, perhaps eight years old, ran into the water and squealed with joy as a low, chilly wave rippled around her legs. Her mom and dad hovered closely knowing that the sea can turn treacherous without warning. The only sound was the wind and a few cackling sea gulls. An idyllic day at the beach.
Looking north, I could see where the original dunes rose. They are now reined in by a cement wall, protecting the houses and history that lay beyond its concrete barrier. Alaine, our French Tour Guide, pointed at the mounds of beach foliage at least a hundred yards beyond the cement barrier. He explained that the entrenched German 352nd Infantry Division used its machine gun emplacements staggered about every 400 meters, and their 75 mm cannons to repel the advancing American 29th and 1st Army Infantry Divisions.
I was about 30 yards from the water and couldn’t fathom surviving the remaining 30-yard dash for cover to the cement barriers. Then I realized that on June 6, 1944, there were no concrete barriers and the run for cover lay another hundred yards into a non-stop barrage of lead and death. I looked back at the laughing little girl and imagined in her place a young GI, probably only about ten years her senior, fighting through his fear and determined to close the distance from the water’s edge to the protective sand dunes so far ahead.
The artillery sounds of US Naval 127 mm, 180 mm and 356 mm launched from the largest naval armada the world has ever seen and the constant shelling and machine gun fire from all sides would have been deafening. From where I stood, I could barely make out the entire 5-mile expanse that was designated as Omaha Beach. But all I heard was the little girl’s shrieks of joy.
It was unfathomable to imagine the fear that those young men must have felt throwing themselves into the line of fire; the hate they felt towards their enemy; the love they heaped upon their dying brethren; and the courage they mustered to press on towards a common goal against all odds.
I often joke that I’m a simpleton – I cannot fathom the vastness of deep space, for instance; nor the infinitesimally small science of nano technology. If I can’t hold it in my hand or see it with my own eyes, my brain simply doesn’t comprehend it. But unfortunately, I can fathom man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. I’ve seen it in both my military and my law enforcement careers.
On this beautiful day, though, with the sun warming my skin, a light sea breeze keeping me cool, a flat, calm sea behind me and an azure sky above…I am simply incapable of imagining the horror and bloodshed that took place under my very feet less than eighty years ago.
“This Embattled Shore, Portal of Freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” Inscription at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.