A day before I left Paris I made a trip out to Normandy. My Mom’s Dad was a part of the Allied Invasion and his heroic deeds as well as that of all those in World War II I revere greatly. This is a place I simply had to go.
My Grandfather landed in Utah beach on D Day plus 4. He served in North Africa and Italy and he was rewarded by not having to be a part of the first waves of the European Invasion. Nonetheless once in Normandy he saw action pretty quick on the small occupied strip of land that was just recently claimed. Below is a map of his Infantry’s division into and across France. He was later wounded in France and rewarded the Silver Star. My Grandfather returned home and that’s why I am alive today.
The train ride view looked just as I imagined it. There were rolling fields with tall hedgerows of trees in between. The sky was overcast and the earth a perfect dark green. I imagined the troops carefully passing from field to field only to be surprised by gunfire initiating head to head combat over and over again. All of a sudden the skies cleared and the blue Atlantic marked the horizon. The land gradually fell down with little harbor towns on inlets bringing the beach closer. My first stop was the American Cemetery.
I looked for a way to get down to the beach but found no way down. I had to get down there. After considering jumping the fence of the cemetery and making my way down through the shrubs with the pillboxes I realized if I walked up the road a bit there was access down. Of course there was. I’m glad I didn’t resort to the former plan.
I expected the act of walking Omaha Beach to be overwhelming. It was in the beginning. I tried to place myself back to June 6th, 1944. The tide was low as it was the morning of the landing. Poor planning or having no choice made the troops have to cross several football fields of sand before clearing the beach. If they had landed at high tide it might’ve only been fifty yards to cross. I’ve never seen a beach with such a huge tidal shift. It’s no wonder it was so bloody.
It wasn’t June 6th 1944 though and the skies weren’t overcast and the mood was not intense adrenaline. It was nice. There were no iron ship blockers, no barb wire. The German pillboxes were all but gone. No bodies or red water. This day it was just a serene beach. I walked a long stretch in the surf barefoot. There were families out with children playing in the tide pools. Kites were flying. There was even a kite surfer. You would never expect this beautiful place to have been a war zone.
I wanted to come to Omaha beach to experience the past. When I was finally there though I questioned why anyone would even want to dwell. It was clear that the people of Normandy had intentionally erased most evidence of what happened there long ago. Maybe they were onto something. I honor what happened. It should be remembered and learned from. Yet the present day on the beach was equally as moving as that remembrance for me. I was supposed to paint the beach that day but I couldn’t. It was windy and my time was limited. In honesty I needed to just be there and take it in. So that’s what I did.