Omaha Beach: Hold Back Your Tears and Keep Silent

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I was walking on the gravel path above Omaha Beach, when I saw the old soldier standing perfectly still, staring out at the sea. Wearing a cream-colored suit and sloped garrison cap, the man looked like a stone monument anchored at the edge of the American Cemetery.

It was June 6, 2001, the 57th anniversary of the 1944 Allied invasion of France, when 150,000 troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. Earlier that morning, as my family and I rode a ferry across the English Channel, I wondered how our visit to the American Cemetery at Colleville would affect me. It’s not often that you stand on ground where the fate of the world shifted.

I had come to know the battle through books and through movies like “The Longest Day,” but it would be another thing to gaze over that broad swath of sand—such an immense killing field—and walk across the green lawn covered with marble crosses.

And it would be an even greater thing to stand on the bluff above Omaha Beach and speak with a veteran who’d seen the whole damn battle with his own eyes.

 

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As I neared the man in the suit, he turned slightly toward me, and I quietly said hello. His hand, like a catcher’s mitt, enveloped mine, and I introduced myself.

He said his name was Joseph.

We stood close to each other beneath pines that shook in the wind, and I asked Joseph if he was a veteran of the invasion. “Yes, I was,” he said. “I came ashore just below where we’re standing.”

“Have you ever been back here since that day?” I asked.

“No,” Joseph replied. “This is the first time I’ve been here in 57 years.”

I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck, and watched tears well in Joseph’s eyes. Though the skies over Normandy were gray as smoke, he squinted like a man peering into the sun. At first, I fumbled for words, but managed to ask what he remembered most about June 6 of 1944.Normandy5

“I was attached to a medical unit, and I was supposed to help assemble medical supplies that came ashore on palettes,” he said. “When I touched the sand, a colonel told me to start dragging bodies out of the water. I told him, ‘Sir, I’m assigned the task of putting these medical supplies together,’ but he yelled, ‘I don’t give a goddamn what you were assigned. Help me get these bodies out of the water!’ ”

So, for hours that’s what Joseph did. He pulled the dead out of surf soaked in blood, and I asked what was going through his mind at that time.

His tanned, weathered face drew up and tightened, and his baritone voice broke as he replied, “I was thinking that I didn’t know why I was there, or what I was doing, but I didn’t think that I would survive.”

I wasn’t sure how to react, but I felt my bottom lip trembling. And then I thought about the sign I had seen earlier at the entrance of the cemetery. It reads:

On a low wall, around the monument, figure the names of 1,557 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

VISITOR: Look how many of them there were

                     Look how young they were

                     They died for your freedom

                     Hold back your tears and keep silent.

It’s a profound sign that issues an enormous challenge. Because in this place, all you want to do is cry.

But I held myself in check and continued to talk with Joseph about his home state of North Carolina and his travels through France with his family. As a large ceremony was about to take place at the cemetery, we said our goodbyes. I thanked Joseph for talking with me, shook his hand, and thanked him for his service.

Thinking back on that day at the American Cemetery, it was one of the most profound moments in all of my travels. I not only spent time with a veteran of the battle, but also shared the visit with my family, including my Uncle Bob, who has passed away, and my father who is a Vietnam Veteran. Plus, there are other aspects of the American Cemetery that make it such a special place, and a must-see for any American traveling in France.Normandy2

First of all, I find it amazing that when you enter the cemetery, you are technically standing on American soil. A sign at the entrance reads:

At the top of the plateau overlooking Omaha Beach, gently sloping down to the sea, whence came liberators, this plot of French soil has been given over in perpetuity to the United States. Here lie nearly 10,000 soldiers.

Think about that…one country deeding its land to another…forever.

Also, the caretakers of the American Cemetery tend to the grounds with impressive levels of respect and attention to detail. Along every sidewalk and curb, the grass is manicured meticulously, with fine edging and hardly a blade out of place. The cemetery’s massive lawns are cropped like the greens of a golf course, and the white marble crosses stand in lines straight as an arrow. Stroll around the grounds, and you won’t spy a speck of litter, while small, round signs remind people to be quiet and respectful. More than a burial ground, this is a spiritual place, a sort of outdoor church, and it is the very definition of hallowed ground.

 

 

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