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From war to peace

The place was quiet, beautiful and nearly deserted. A middle-aged couple farther up the beach soaked up the sun, while our family tried to absorb the significance. My children wandered quietly, one looking at seashells, one drawing in the sand with a stick, another taking pictures. I was surprised by the peacefulness, the blue sky and even bluer water lapping at the shore of Normandy.

I’m not sure what I expected from Omaha Beach so many decades after D-Day, but it wasn’t serenity. My ideas about this strip of coastline had been dominated by black and white film recorded 70 years ago. Choppy seas, rain and low clouds added to the gloom of photos from June 6, 1944, the day Allied forces landed and began the liberation of Europe from Hitler’s forces.

Those gray, grainy pictures showed the beach crawling with troops, blasted by shells, marred by large iron barriers and crisscrossed with concertina wire. When our family went to Normandy in 2010, I didn’t expect soldiers and mortar fire, but for some reason I also didn’t expect such bright colors and such calm.

On the sunny stretch of Omaha where we stood, there were few signs of the stormy battle waged there. Farther west at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, out of sight to us that day, a silver sculpture rises from the sand. It’s called “Les Braves,” created by a French sculptor to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Other older monuments stand on higher ground above the beach.

The landing beaches for the invasion, code named “Operation Overlord,” were named — from west to east — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Omaha was the widest swath at about five miles, and was the site of the deadliest part of the battle on D-Day. As we walked across the now-peaceful sand, we remembered the thousands of troops who gave their lives to win this beachhead and others near it.

Between Omaha and Utah Beach, where more American forces landed, is Pointe du Hoc, a 100-foot cliff scaled by U.S. Army Rangers during the invasion. At the top, we walked among giant craters left by American bombardment of German defenses. Now grass grows inside the craters, and the feet of many visitors have worn paths in and all around them. Families pushed strollers along paved walkways and enjoyed the stunning view of the ocean.

At Longues-sur-Mer, we went inside concrete bunkers housing giant guns — all silent, some missing — once used by the Germans to fire on Allied ships.

On our trip, we stayed in the village of Arromanches overlooking Gold Beach, where British forces came ashore on D-Day. Canadian forces landed farther east at Juno, and more British at the easternmost, Sword Beach.

These days, the waterfront promenade at Arromanches is festive with French flags waving alongside American flags and Union Jacks. A carousel, ice cream shops and tourists mingle with WWII museums, static displays of tanks and weapons. Down on Gold Beach, children kick soccer balls among remnants of war, huge structures, which lie like beached metal whales at low tide. Farther out, a row of dark hulks rise from the water and pleasure boats drift among them.

These are remnants of ships and caissons that were scuttled as a breakwater to protect an artificial harbor now long gone. The harbor was built after the invasion to facilitate a supply line for the thousands of Allied troops who, after breaking through German defenses, continued their inland march.

Reminders of the conflict are everywhere, as are reminders of the cost. We visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial just above Omaha Beach and also a German cemetery nearby. In one day we walked among the grave markers of thousands who died — in one day.

We went to Normandy to see the place of a great battle, to pay respect to those who fought. We saw the evidence of war, and we saw the evidence of peace. Where brave men fought, children now play. Peace prevails. It’s what we all hope to find when war is over and for many years to come.

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