Monday, May 26, 2014

Hallowed Ground

by Carol




On this Memorial Day I am looking through different eyes. I just returned from a visit to the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, France, where I was lucky enough to be part of a group with a terrific guide, Matieau Cardinale, a native of the nearby town of Bayeux. Knowing we were a photography group, Matieau's first gift to us was that he reversed the order of the usual tour so that we would be alone in the American Cemetery. The unexpected result was that our tour became much more emotional, because we were immediately taken out of "vacation mode," and indelibly impressed with the gravity of what we were about to learn.
Matieau's second gift was passion for the subject - he came with a notebook of pictures from the 1940's, the gift of gab, and personal family stories of those horrible days. His "grandpa" was in the Resistance. He was caught and arrested, escaped, and a year later was arrested again and tortured. Ten percent of his hometown lost their lives, not to mention their churches and homes. This story is personal to him. While he infused his tales with some happier details - like local girls using the paratroopers' parachutes to make silk dresses, and locals thinking that they were being given poison when the soldiers gave them Cokes, and small children tasting chocolate from the soldiers for the first time, most of the stories were obviously much more tragic.


There are 9,387 Americans buried here; 3000 of them were lost within three hours on June 6, 1944. The locals were so grateful for the Americans, English and Canadians who helped them, that their primary goal was to make the cemetery a comfortable place for the families to visit their loved ones; so the design of each cemetery incorporates architecture and plantings familiar to their country. The American cemetery has a monument similar to Monticello, lots of green grass, and trees and plants native to America. 


You first walk through The Garden of the Missing, which has circular walls on which the names of the 1557 men never found are inscribed. Looking up you see a statue - "The Spirit of American Youth Rising." It reaches up, "striving for freedom" and looks out on a reflecting pool. The monument contains a time capsule full of the history of that horrible day. But the biggest impact comes when you climb the steps of the monument. Upon reaching the top, you look out towards the sea, upon an endless view of crosses in every direction. The impact of the sheer number of them is overwhelming. We all found ourselves in tears and in silence. 



The emotions became even fuller as our day with Matieau progressed and we learned that most of the boys killed here were only 16 to 19 years old. For the first landed, this was their first combat experience! Having practiced in the calm waters off of England (only 65 KM away), the day was stormy, and the waves high - most of the soldiers already seasick and terrified. While in the movies the enemy guns are pointed out towards the ships, in reality, they were pointed sideways at the beaches in order to just mow down the men. Those who made it had to scale the cliffs in full exposure to the gunfire. It's amazing anyone survived, no less overcame.


While the people from Normandy say they "can forgive, but will never forget," they remain very grateful for the help of the world. Each kindergartner here is brought to the cemetery when they start school. They choose a grave at that time that they will care for and tend for the rest of their lives. That's where the flags and the flowers come from. 


Walking Omaha Beach on a beautiful 70 degree day in the sunshine, it is hard to imagine what took place here in 1944. It is truly hallowed ground.













14 comments:

heyjudephotography said...

Thank you for sharing this Carol. I've never been there, but through your words and pictures I can feel what a powerfully emotional place it is.

Susan said...

Wow, what an incredible tribute to these brave men and women! Thanks for sharing such an honorable time with the stories and photos!!

terriporter said...

Perfect post for today, Carol. Of course, we've all read and seen photos of this place -- I was just studying WWII with my grandson -- but to actually be there had to be an incredible experience. My father was there at the time, not on Normandy or Omaha Beach but on a Navy refueling ship which took fuel to the other ships. It was an incredibly dangerous place to be (the ship he was on sunk twice) and I have always been grateful that he survived. But so many did not and it is they who we honor today. Thank you for helping us all remember to be grateful.

Dotti said...

Awesome post! It is too easy to forget. I'm always overwhelmed when I go to National cemeteries. The sacrifices were so great.

Cathy said...

Beautiful post. And such a good reminder for us all because it is easy to forget.

Michele.NYC said...

I cried...again. Most memorable part of the trip for me.

Carol said...

Me too Michele -I'll never forget it.

Edward Magaziner said...

Very well said Carol. I was there with you and your observations and ability to communicate the feelings and description of the site was spot on.
You are a gifted photographer and writer. I really enjoyed meeting and traveling with you. All my best, Ed Magaziner

Sarah Huizenga said...

I remember the awe standing there, I have never experienced anything like it. We were not on quite as a generous time line as you were for being there. I think we had one hour total, so we never down to the beach. I would love to go back someday, and with a photography tour would be so much nicer.

CarolHart said...

Such a wonderful, respectful post. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

kelly said...

beautiful, moving photos and words. this post touched my heart especially because my grandfather served in WWII and spent time in france. thank you for honoring all the service men and women with this special post.

Cathy H. said...

Beautiful words and images. I'm sure this was an amazing experience.

Deanna said...

I can imagine the overwhelming emotions you must have had as you walked those hallowed grounds. And what a tribute that there are children that care for those graves, what a blessing they must be to the surviving family members.

susan said...

So beautiful...

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