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Travel feature

Normandy: A visit to the sites where Americans paid the ultimate price to liberate France

By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 9, 2014

Early on June 6, 1944, an armada of warships and landing craft headed toward the coast of Normandy, France, and the night sky was filled with a swarm of more than 3,000 airplanes and gliders.

Airborne troops — 20,000 of them — were to jump into Normandy with the task of capturing and securing bridges and beach exits for the amphibious force that was to hit the beaches in the morning in an effort to rout the Nazis from occupied France. British paratroops were to secure the eastern flank of invasion beaches while the more than 15,000 parachutists from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were to protect the western flank around the town of Ste.-Mère-Église.

In that town, just a couple of miles inland from Utah Beach, the night sky was, unfortunately, not particularly dark as the parachutists floated down. A burning house, possibly set on fire by pre-invasion bombing, lit up the sky, revealing the silhouettes of descending paratroops.

For one trooper, the situation was even more unsettling. Pvt. John Steele had been shot in the foot on the way down, and, to make matters worse, his parachute got caught on the steeple of the Ste.-Mère-Église church. Hanging there, he played dead before being captured by the Germans.

Visitors to Ste.-Mère-Église today can still see the 82nd Airborne soldier hanging there, albeit, in effigy. His plight was retold as part of the 1962 movie “The Longest Day,” where Steele was played by Red Buttons.

In the church, there are two interesting stained-glass windows: one of the Virgin Mary surrounded by paratroops and one of St. Michael, patron saint of parachutists, which was donated by veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division for the 25th anniversary of D-Day.

Across the street is the U.S. Airborne Museum, which is worth a visit. On display is a Douglas C-47 used in the invasion to transport paratroops and tow gliders, along with a Waco glider used to ferry troops and cargo during the assault.

The town itself is worth a look. Check out the post marking Kilometer 0 of the Voie de la Liberté, or Liberty Road, in front of the town hall, that follows the American drive across France in World War II. Interestingly, there is a Kilometer 00 marker at Utah Beach, as well.

About two miles from Ste.-Mère-Église, on road D15 toward Picauville, stands the “Iron Mike” statue, dedicated to the paratroops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The battle for the small bridge across the Merderet River at the hamlet of La Fière was one of the heaviest fought by the 82nd in Normandy. A parachute jump to mark the battle is scheduled here for June 8.

Follow the road a little farther and you will come to a small monument to the glider pilots. A short drive on, there’s one to the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

H-Hour at Utah and Omaha Beach — the time the invasion was to begin — was 6:30 a.m.

At Omaha, the U.S. 1st and 29th Divisions came under heavy fire. Despite bombardment from air and sea, the Nazis still had plenty of firepower, turning the beach into a bloody killing field.

At Utah, things went better. Due to a stroke of luck, the 4th Division had landed slightly off course, on a strip of beach not as heavily defended. Not that the going was easy, and when things appeared to bog down, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. marched up and down the beach urging his soldiers to move inland. For his efforts, he was given the Medal of Honor. He died of a heart attack on July 12, 1944, and is buried at Normandy American Cemetery.

The Utah Beach Museum tells the story of D-Day, from preparations for the invasion to its successful outcome. There is much to see, from an original Martin B-26 Marauder twin-engine bomber, to a Higgins boat landing craft. Many personal items used and carried by soldiers, sailors and airmen are on display, and the documentary “Victory in the Sand” is itself worth the price of admission. In front of the museum is a monument to the 4th Infantry Division.

On the beach there are a number of other monuments. There is a memorial for the 90th Infantry Division, the 1st Engineer Special Brigade’s monument is on top of an old German bunker, and nearby is the U.S. Navy Monument, the newest on the beach. The Utah Beach American Memorial is being renovated, but is due to be finished for the anniversary commemoration.

Driving toward Ste.-Marie-du-Mont you will come across the area’s newest monument, which is, as its plaque says, dedicated to those who led the way on D-Day. It depicts Maj. Richard Winters of “Band of Brothers” fame. A memorial to his “Easy” Company is nearby.

At Pointe du Hoc, Lt. Col. James Rudder and the men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion fought their way up steep 100-foot cliffs that rose from the sea, to capture a German gun position that could have riddled Utah and Omaha Beaches with shells. They captured the position only to find that some of the guns had been moved and tree trunks were used as props.

A new visitors center was recently opened at Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument, and a visit there should not be missed. First, watch the video then walk out toward the monument, past and over derelict German bunkers and through a landscape still scarred with craters from the Allied bombing and shelling.

The monument is beautiful in its simplicity. A tall granite pylon stands atop a German bunker with tablets at its base inscribed in English and French.

On Omaha, things had not gone well all morning. The tanks that were to land on the beach to soften up the enemy were released too far out to sea and most sank. When infantry troops hit the beach, they immediately got pinned down by enemy fire. The draws, the roads up from the beach, were blocked by Germans. To make things worse, landing craft filled with troops kept pouring in, clogging up the beaches.

Under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Norman Cota of the 29th Infantry Division, the troops began climbing directly up the bluffs, blowing away obstacles with explosives and opening up the way inland. Still, the beachhead and the cliffs would not fully be in Allied hands until the end of the day. By midnight, around 34,250 troops had landed, with about 2,000 casualties.

Today, it is hard to imagine the horror, blood and confusion at Omaha Beach on D-Day. The loudest sound now might be the tour buses rolling down the coastal road.

Along the road down to the beach at Vierville-sur-Merthere are monuments to the 29th Infantry Division, with its motto “29, Let’s Go!” engraved on it, and to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade.

The U-shaped National Guard Monument is the most prominent sight on the western end of Omaha at Vierville. It, too, is built on a German gun position, and around to the back of it you can still see a gun. There is also a marker for the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion here.

At Vierville-sur-Mer stands the Signal Monument with a dedication to the 1st Infantry Division on one side and the 116th Infantry Regimental Combat Team on the other. Behind it on the beach is the modern sculpture “Les Braves.” The stainless steel sculpture is 9 meters high at its tallest point and weighs 15 tons. Its pieces represent the wings of hope, the rise of freedom and the wings of fraternity.

On the far eastern end of Omaha Beach near Colleville-sur-Mer, stands the 1st Infantry Division Monument, a tall obelisk with the names of the division’s fallen engraved on it.

Nearby are two museums worth checking out, the Overlord Museum near the American cemetery and the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum on the road to Ste.-Laurent-sur-Mer.

High on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach is hallowed ground. Here, at Normandy American Cemetery, 9,387 American war dead are buried.

The entrance to the cemetery is through a visitors center featuring multimedia displays that trace the run-up to the invasion and its aftermath. Outside the center a path takes visitors to the bluff overlooking the beach. An orientation table, high above the sands below, shows all the Normandy invasion beaches. But the cemetery’s focal point is the 22-foot-high statue “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”

The headstones are of white marble in the shape of a Latin cross, except for the 149 topped by the Star of David that mark Jewish graves.

Three Medal of Honor recipients are buried here, along with 41 sets of brothers and even a father and son.

Behind the statue is the Garden of the Missing, its walls inscribed with 1,557 names of those missing in action.

Standing at the foot of the statue looking across the reflecting pool, with the graves stretching row upon row almost as far as the eyes can see, you get an idea of how much the country sacrificed for freedom on D-Day and beyond.

abrams.mike@stripes.com
 

The statue of "Iron Mike" standing in a field at La Fiere, near Ste.-Mère-Église represents the paratroops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions who fought in the area.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

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