Letter from a vagabond 16 October 2018 Thoughts from Omaha Beach…

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Two days ago, I booked myself on a tour that took me to Pont du Hoc, the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach.  Because I was in a group, it was a very different emotional experience than Verdun, where I was alone.  The group buffered the pain all of us were feeling, I think.

It was all Americans with one Danish couple.

The tour was led by Mike, who sounded all too British and turned out to be Dutch who had lived in England for a long time, lured to France to work three years ago with a start-up, Bayeux Multi-Media Tours, the company I booked.  The drive to Pont du Hoc was illustrated by a video shown on a flat screen above Mike, as he drove.  When it wasn’t on, he filled the silence with stories.

There were two high school best friends who every five years or so, created a trip just for themselves.  One is a College Dean, the other works in construction.  They live in different parts of America.  One couple was from Albuquerque and another from Philadelphia.  A young woman was from San Francisco, on a side trip before meeting friends in Rennes and then heading on to St. Malo.   We chatted about that.  Riding shotgun so he could charge his phone was Phil, from Chicago.  There were a few others.

We hear about Omaha Beach and know of the American Cemetery but I had never heard of Pont du Hoc, or if I had, had forgotten – which is a shame because this is where it really began, the first place the Allies began to claw back Europe from the Germans.

The Allies thought there were big guns, capable of firing three miles, captured from the French at Pont du Hoc. The Germans moved them away into a field, disguised them and replaced them with their own guns while leaving wooden decoys to confuse the Allies.  The Brits or Americans would bomb Pont du Hoc and never seemed to hit the guns so on D-Day, a group of Rangers were assigned to take out the guns at Pont du Hoc.  Of the 750 Rangers dispatched, only 225 ever reached Pont Du Hoc.

Under the command of Lt. Colonel James Earl Rugger, those 225 men took Pont du Hoc, secured it and took command of the road, cutting the Germans off.  For forty-eight hours, they held their own and when reinforcements arrived, only 90 were still capable of holding a gun.

In the bunkers the Germans built, I stood looking out the slits and wondered how terrified I would be if I had been a young German soldier waiting for the invasion they knew would be coming.

The Desert Fox, Rommel designed the defenses and would have been commanding the Germans if Hitler hadn’t ordered him to commit suicide because he was suspected of being part of the plot to kill Hitler.

At Pont du Hoc, I stood, alone, looking down at the cliffs the Rangers climbed and nearly doubled over in tears and wonder at the courage of those men.

We arrived at the American Cemetery just as they were lowering the flag.  Taps played, guns were fired as I stared across close to ten thousand graves.  Looking down upon the water, seagulls called, and the waves sounded.  Had it been that serene in the days before D-Day?

The landing at Omaha Beach appeared catastrophic.  As evacuation was being ordered, and a brash American battleship commander ignored the order, plowed his ship forward, turned on a dime, it seemed, and began to barrage the defenders with broadsides.  Four more ships followed, and the tide began to turn.

As I stood on the beach, a young man filled an empty Perrier bottle with sand.  Had his grandfather fought there?  He wandered off, his bottled sand in his knapsack.  Phil from Chicago fought back tears.

Staring out at the water, I felt enormous aloneness and a sense I was standing in history, even as a little girl ran down the beach, her arms flung wide, her blonde air streaming in the wind.

 

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