Normandy: A lot of history found in French province

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kelley J. Stewart
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
My love for history was kindled as a child by my dad. We would watch television series together like "20th Century," which covered topics like World War II.

When I joined the military, my dad would video tape shows from the History Channel for me. He never taped the shows I asked for, but shows he thought I'd like. My mom used to laugh because he would get the Sunday television guide and highlight the shows he was going to record for me on a weekly basis.

I would get boxes with tapes entitled "Hitler's Henchmen," "Hitler's Generals," "The Fall of the Third Reich" and many others dealing with WWII on the European and Pacific fronts. He got me hooked on that era in history.

I was so hooked that I would buy books about WWII and share them with my dad. We'd both read and discuss them. My dad was very insightful. I guess that came from growing up during the war.

I promised myself after joining the Air Force I'd take him to visit Normandy and see the D-Day invasion sights when he came to Europe for a visit. Unfortunately that never happened.

My dad passed away Aug. 3, 2010. However, I had the opportunity to go there Sept. 3-5 with a coworker, and I jumped at the chance.

We found a hotel a few days before our trip and booked it. Her criterion for the room was it not be too expensive and mine was that it be clean. We managed to meet both goals.

The two of us hit the road the morning of Sept. 3 with the address of the hotel programmed into the GPS.

We arrived at our hotel in Bayeux about 1:30 p.m. This is a cute little town located northwest of Caen and not too far from the coast. Since we arrived later in the day, my friend and I decided to walk around the town to see the sights and do a little shopping. The main thing you see as you drive into the town is the awe-inspiring Cathedral Notre-Dame that was consecrated in the presence of William the Conqueror in 1077.

We got an early start Sept. 4 - maybe too early of a start because there weren't many places open for breakfast, but we did find a café that was open. Once we'd eaten and laid out our game plan, we walked to the car and headed for Omaha Beach. This time we were relying on good old-fashioned map reading to get us where we wanted to go.

After a few wrong turns, we managed to find Omaha beach. When you pull up, you see a huge expanse of beach. You also see some memorials on the green hillside and the remains of a bunker. It's hard to picture in your mind American service members storming the beach when you see people enjoying recreational activities like jet skiing.

The next stop was the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach. This beautiful cemetery is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The gravestones of more than 9,000 service members who died in the invasion of Europe are perfectly lined up no matter which direction you happen to be looking.

There is a memorial building there when you first arrive. Inside is a movie that plays repeatedly called "Letters." This movie tells you about some of the men who served and died during the invasion and are buried in the cemetery. There are displays that explain how the allies deceived the Germans, to what the medics carried in their packs, to how the paratroopers were scattered all behind enemy lines just prior to the invasion kicking off.

You cannot make a WWII battlefield visit to Normandy and not stop by Pointe du Hoc. The 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed the sheer, 100-foot cliffs there to take out some German guns that were pounding Omaha and Utah Beaches.

The ground is still pocked with holes from the bombers that pounded Pointe du Hoc to soften the target for the Rangers. Bunkers and pillboxes that housed machine guns still stand, and a few are broken pieces of concrete piles in the bombed holes in the ground.

After leaving Pointe du Hoc, we traveled to Utah Beach, the second beach the Americans were to take June 6, 1944. There is a museum there and a lovely statue to honor the Sailors who brought the landing craft carrying the Soldiers into the beach and for the ships that blasted the shoreline to take out the German defenses.

Again, it was hard to imagine U.S. service members storming up the beach in a hail of machine gun fire and mortars because now it's now such a peaceful setting.

My friend and I drove back to the hotel in Bayeux exhausted from climbing all over the hills, bunkers, and pillboxes and walking up and down the beaches.

After we packed up the car and checked out of the hotel on Sept. 5, we hit the road with map in hand for Arromanches-les-Bains. On this cliff face, you see nothing but beautiful blue-green water with the remains of the artificial Mulberry harbor. These are huge concrete blocks that make a ring out in the water. This artificial harbor was used to off-load supplies for the allies during the D-Day invasion.

We also saw a movie while we were there in a circular theater comprised of nine screens. We stood in the theater and watched as the movie placed us in the action of the Normandy invasion. The movie makers used clips shot by film-makers during D-Day and the campaigns mixed in with film of the more peaceful Normandy of today.

From Arromanches, my friend and I headed down the coast in search of Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. We drove past Gold, but found Juno and Sword. These beaches weren't as well marked as Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach were. I recommend looking out for a blue sign with a dove on it. I saw one of these signs at every stop we made Sept. 5.

Juno Beach had the remnants of a bunker the Canadians stormed on D-Day. The British stormed Gold and Sword Beaches. There were a lot of memorials set up on the beaches to honor the men who died during the invasion. Poppy wreaths were laid at the base of most of them. Again, it was hard to picture men storming the beach because they were so peaceful and people were riding by on their bicycles.

Our last stop before heading back to Germany was Pegasus Bridge. This was the first "attack" of the D-Day invasion. The British 6th Airborne Division seized this bridge from the Germans before ground forces hit the beach. The bridge was needed to get supplies to the troops if the invasion was to continue. The bridge was captured before the German soldiers could blow it up.

There was a cute café located in what is claimed to be the first house liberated in France on D-Day. The café is crammed full of memorabilia from the British service members who took the bridge, and it's an interesting place to see.

Finally, about 3 p.m. we fired up the GPS and headed home. The drive was nice until we hit a traffic jam in Belgium that delayed us by an hour, but that hasn't stopped us from planning our next trip.

I wish my dad could have come with us to see what we had the honor of seeing. However, I know he was with me in my heart and enjoyed the trip as much as I did.