Today got off to a very rough start. After only a few hours of sleep, we all got up bright and early, bags packed, to head off to the Normandy area. Our bus was an hour late and while we were all standing on the sidewalk with our suitcases lamenting the fact that we could have slept longer, a couple of men started to hover around our area. The bus pulled up and our wonderful EF guide threw his bag in the front seat of the bus and proceeded to help load the suitcases onto the bus. A few of us noticed that the men were acting peculiar and so we all held on tightly to our bags. We got on the bus, and Pascal’s bag was gone! One of our students said that she saw the one man walk up the bus stairs, then walk off – she thought perhaps he thought it was a public bus and didn’t think anything of it. Pascal’s passport, money, credit cards, home address and apartment keys were all in his bag! It was terrible. He’s still sorting it out, but thankfully was able to immediately get the locks changed on his apartment.
Well, things could only go up from there, and they did. It took us quite a while to get to Normandy (5 hours – we hit traffic and got lost once!) But it was all worth it. We first went to the American cemetery. I’ve seen pictures before, but nothing prepares you emotionally for the sea of white crosses and stars of David that unfold across the landscape. As we all were looking over the edge of the cliffs to Omaha Beach below, thunder began to rumble in the distance giving our visit a haunting feel as we could all better imagine the sounds of mortars and gunfire on June 6, 1944.
With Pascal’s help, Bill and his father were able to find their uncle’s grave. I felt incredibly blessed to witness this incredible moment in their family and was fortunate to capture video of it as well as my father-in-law’s recollection of his Uncle Edward and the day they “got the telegram.” Edward Switala was 19 and had been married only 8 months when he was KIA.
I was surprised at how well I kept my composure as I thought of my grandfather and what he went through at Utah Beach – that is, until the chimes rang out our national anthem and then Taps. As I looked around, I noticed that everyone – no matter what age, nationality, race, or religion – stood completely still and silent. Any anti-American sentiment that is rumored to run rampant in Europe does not exist in Normandy. In every single village we passed through, American flags (and many British and Canadian flags) were proudly displayed alongside French flags. The reverence for America and what happened 65 years ago in France is astounding and made me feel both proud to be an American and even more proud of my grandfather for his role in D-Day.
We were able to go down to the Omaha Beaches and I believe all of us filled up empty water bottles with sand and stepped into the English Channel to place our bare feet on the sacred ground. The next stop was really amazing – we went to Bayeaux and explored some German bunkers with some really big guns (that’s the technical term, you know – “really big guns” – the common term is artillery…) Although they were about 7 miles away from the Channel, they were still able to hit targets at a range of around 10 miles. Our last stop before dinner was at Arromanches where the Allies built a massive dock for the Allied ships. It was pretty remarkable.