Brittany American Cemetery: More than 4,000 US WWII dead rest in honored glory in France
By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 21, 2014
The D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, was only the beginning of the struggle to liberate western Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II.
After waging fierce battles on the Normandy beaches, and finally capturing St. Lo in mid-July, the Allies launched Operation Cobra to break out of Normandy, advance through Brittany and liberate Paris.
The fighting was heavy, and as the armies swept across Brittany, casualties were high. Many Americans who fell here never left France, and 4,408 are buried at Brittany American Cemetery on the outskirts of the small town of St. James.
It was first a temporary graveyard during the war, then became a permanent one, being dedicated on July 20, 1956.
The cemetery’s layout is designed as a military emblem, that of SHAEF —Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces — the armies under Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower’s command from 1943 through the end of the war. It depicts a flaming sword backed by a shield.
As the cemetery’s assistant superintendent, Walter Benjamin, explained during a recent visit, the Memorial building and the two walls with the Tablets of the Missing that flank it make up the sword’s hilt. Two paths that lead through the center of the cemetery and meet behind a cenotaph at its far end form the sword’s blade. Two paths that lead back to the Tablets of the Missing make up the emblem’s shield and the curved rows of graves are the sword’s flames.
The emblem is featured in a stained-glass window above the Memorial’s main entrance.
The Brittany American Cemetery is similar to others administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Row upon row of white Latin crosses stand, speckled with 81 Stars of David representing Jewish fallen, in 16 plots to the left and right of the center paths.
On each marker, Christian or Jewish, is the fallen’s name, rank, unit, place of birth and day of death. For 97 whose identity has been lost forever, it simply states: “Here Rests In Honored Glory A Comrade In Arms Known But To God.”
There are 498 names inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing.
Inside the Memorial building, two walls are each adorned with a giant map. One shows the breakout from the beachhead and the advance to the Seine River, while the other depicts operations from Normandy to the end of the war.
Above the chapel altar is a stained-glass window of the great seal of the United States.
Before you leave, sign the guest register in the visitor building and leave a message for those who gave their lives for freedom.
Brittany American Cemetery
Brittany American Cemetery is about 1.5 miles southeast of St. James, France, and about 12 miles south of Avranches. It is about a 30-minute drive from Mont St. Michel.
From Paris, about a 3.5-hour drive, take the A-13 highway to Caen and then A-84 toward Rennes, exiting at St. James.
Coming from Omaha Beach take N-13 toward Cherbourg, then N-174 toward St. Lo, until it meets up with A-84. GPS coordinates are N48 31.199 W1 18.067.
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
The cemetery’s link on the American Battle Monument Commission’s website is www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/brittany-american-cemetery.
Some upcoming events at the cemetery are the Memorial Day ceremony at 3 p.m. May 26 and a ceremony honoring paratroops at 10 a.m. June 1, with a scheduled CV-22 Osprey flyover.