Beyond the beaches, Normandy's pastoral scene shows few signs of invasion
CARENTAN, June 5—The soothing hand of time has erased the scars of war from the battered villages and the torn fields of Normandy.
Where once each house was a fortress to be wrenched from the German hand and every hedgerow a nightmare of hidden death, the Norman farmer tends his orchards and flocks under the quiet summer sun. Where every road swarmed with attacking Americans and roared with guns and armor the peasant now jogs in his highwheeled cart.
Once the focal point of a world anxious for the final victory, Normandy is forgotten now, as it was before the war. During the three years which have elapsed since the troops stormed across the sands of Utah and Omaha, and up the hills behind, most of the traces of the fierce fighting have been removed, covered up or have disappeared so that it is only on the beaches themselves, in some of the towns and in the people of Normandy that you can see that it was here that the destiny of the Continent was decided. The foxholes in the fields, even the horizontal ones in the hedgerows, have disappeared, plowed under or grown over, while the thrifty farmers have salvaged every usable piece of equipment, even dismantling tanks for scrap iron.
Even in the first few miles beyond the beaches, near the airborne drops above St. Lo, where every inch gained meant hours of agony, there is little to indicate that men fought and died here. What signs the Norman farmer has left have been covered by the lush greenery of the land.
But yet it is easy to see that the Americans once passed this way. Farmers plow their fields dressed in GI fatigues and wearing GI boots; their daughters go to confirmation in dresses of white parachute silk, and their sons wear ODs for their Sunday best. It is nothing unusual to see a man fully clad in U.S. Army clothing.
Signs reading "mines cleared to shoulders" are used to patch the barns, while telephone wire — drab American and bright red German — holds the gates together. At Omaha, there are daisies growing thickly across the road men call Drnovich Road for the engineer captain who died while gouging it out of the face of the cliff. There are German mine clearers living in the shattered house where the 1st Engr. Special Brig. had its beachhead headquarters, and a farmer is fertilizing the field on top the hill where reconnaissance planes once dared direct fire to land.
The breakwater of ships is still there and the sand is still cluttered with the hulks of landing craft, but the storms and rust have softened their outlines so they seem to have been there always. Even the personal debris of broken rifles, bayonets, blankets and mess gear fail to impress that this was once a place where the decision between the quick and the dead was made.
Across the deep ravine from the field where the farmer works, in St. Laurent Cemetery, in that exclusive and eternal fraternity of fighting men who die together, lie the men of the 16th and 116th Inf. and their supporting units, who fell on the beaches and the hills they won.
In the names on the crosses and Stars of David here, like those in the cemeteries at Blosville, Marigny, St. Mere Eglise and others, you can see the truly American composition of outfits which fought. Names like Smith, Torriano, Larson, Pregstein, Schmidt or Zabreski are as likely to be followed by the higher-than-twenty number of a draftee or guardsman as they are by the low numbers of the Regular Army or the O of an officer.
At Utah, like Omaha, the engineers have erected monuments to their dead, and the roads have signs like this: "Olle Road, in honor or T/5 Olle, killed in action June 6, 1944." It is a matter of regret that the infantrymen who fought and died or fought and moved on to fight again have no monument on either beach to mark their passing.
Just behind the beach Mime. F. Lereverend does a brisk business with tourists who stop at the cafe she reopened after the Germans moved her out in 1939. On the wall of her cafe is the sign: "Transient area," and an arrow pointing inland, and across the road is a windowless shack still bearing the legend: "USN SP Hq."
There are Germans working on Utah too, and like those on Omaha, they wear mixed uniforms of wehrmacht and GI issue. They live in a fortified house in St. Germaine, and on the wall is scrawled an illegible name and "Able Co., 22nd Inf."
The towns and villages of Normandy are the most definite reminder of the ferocity of the Normandy campaign. Most of Caen is a vast wasteland marked by neat piles of stones which once were houses. St. Lo and Valognes, with their barracklike housing projects, look like construction camps in the middle of a stone quarry. The business and residential part of Cherbourg look like any other port city in particularly bad repair, while Montebourg, St. Mere Eglise — St. Mary's Eagle Eyes to the paratroopers — and countless other rural communities are still anywhere up to 50 per cent un inhabitable.
The dour Normans are outwardly as undemonstrative as ever. They speak when spoken to, and then only a little. They will sell green calvados at any price they can get. They rebel against national ration authority, feeling that if everyone worked as hard as they do, everyone would eat as well too. They think the Americans could have been easier on their towns. And they leave flowers at the American cemeteries every day.