THE NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY
Anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan is familiar with the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. There’s that final scene, when the surviving veteran comes to pay his respects; the camera pans through the cemetery, across row upon row of perfectly aligned white crosses, intensely green grass, and reverent stillness.
I knew in advance what I’d see at Colleville-sur-Mer. I had all the facts at my fingertips: 9,386 graves at the site overlooking Omaha Beach; 172 acres of French soil granted in perpetuity to the United States.
But that had not prepared me in the slightest.
We have entered the zone of the American landings and American losses. Nowhere is this clearer than at the American Cemetery. This Thanksgiving Day, there are a surprising number of visitors, almost all American. Entire families have assembled to pay respect. Knots of people gather at individual graves, but others, like us, simply wander, bereft of speech or purpose. I’m struck by how pristine the graves are, how flawless the lawn, and how precisely deployed the marching rows of headstones. It is unmistakably a military cemetery.
Despite the open vastness of the grounds, everyone speaks in a whisper, as if in church. We walk to the focal point of the cemetery, the memorial featuring a bronze statue "The Sprit of American Youth Rising From The Waves." It’s flanked by two enormous maps of the European Theater of Operations (ETO). An elderly man stands with several younger men and points to one spot on the map, then another, perhaps indicating places he’d fought during the war.
The cemetery is ringed by a wall of dark evergreen trees. A long path through the trees runs parallel to the cliff edge. Walking down this path and then toward the beach, we find the viewing platform overlooking Omaha Beach. The 1st Division landed on this sector of the beach on D-Day, and it seems strange now to see nothing there but a placid ocean beyond a featureless spit of sand. It occurs to me that a good portion of the cemetery must stand on what were once German defenses. As I look down at the beach, I wonder if it is high or low tide.
The Allies, of course, had to land at low tide to avoid having their landing craft hit the mines and other obstacles which were concealed in the water at high tide. Since the beach shelf slopes very gradually, the difference between high and low tide amounts to several hundred yards more of beach to cross, perilous yards consuming precious minutes as the American troops were exposed to withering fire from German machine guns while attempting to reach the relative safety of the seawall.
I think of that fatal gauntlet, braved by men burdened with heavy equipment, as we leave the American Cemetery and head down to Omaha Beach.
"The enemy is at his weakest just after landing. The troops are unsure and possibly even seasick. They are unfamiliar with the terrain. Heavy weapons are not yet available in sufficient quantity. This is the moment to strike at them and defeat them." - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
The American troops who came ashore at Omaha Beach had been assured of three things: That the German gun emplacements on the cliffs would be destroyed by a massive bombardment from the air and sea, that the ‘swimming’ DD (dual drive) tanks would swiftly knock out remaining artillery and machine guns, and that the German troops they faced on shore were not high grade.
None of this proved to be the case.
Air Force bombers, unable to accurately pinpoint objectives through dense cloud cover, bombarded areas far inland, leaving all the German guns intact. Almost all the specially-outfitted Sherman ‘DD’ tanks designed to swim ashore were caught by currents then swamped and sank as they attempted to correct course. And Allied intelligence had judged the German troops positioned at Omaha to be the less-than-half-strength 76th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of disheartened Poles and non-German troops. Instead, the Americans faced the combat-hardened 352nd Infantry Division, operating at full strength.
Casualties at Omaha Beach were greater than all the other four beaches combined – over 4,000 men. The overall survival rate was 1 in 9, but this is misleading, for the troops who came ashore later in the day suffered very light losses, whereas the nearly half the men who came ashore in the first wave were killed.
Huddling in their landing craft, the men in the first assault were wet, cold, and suffering from seasickness, yet they had little idea of the hellish prospect they faced. As they approached, it was strangely quiet as the Germans held fire until the landing craft were within range, then hit them with the full weight of their firepower. Company A of the 116th Regiment, ‘the Stonewall Brigade,’ lost over ninety percent of its men before managing to fire a single shot.
A high percentage of the men who were killed weren’t shot but drowned. Those who made it ashore faced a stretch of beach that was no more than a shooting gallery for the German machine gunners. It seemed, at first, hopeless, and in fact General Bradley, overseeing the battle plan offshore, considered aborting the plan to invade at Omaha and sendind incoming troops to Utah Beach instead.
Yet somehow the stunned and demoralized men at Omaha Beach began to coalesce and fight, forming ad hoc groups rallied by the surviving officers. "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach," bellowed Col. George Taylor, "the dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here."
Somehow, they got the hell out of there.
Down on Omaha Beach, it’s midway between high and low tide, though I’m unsure if the tide is coming in or going out. No one is around; it seems few of the visitors at the cemetery make the trek down to the beach. Jack and Greg have elected to stay in the car, once again humoring me as I take my time, slowly walking down the beach. Pebbles on the sand click together as they wash back and forth in the surf. I bend down and pick a few up. They’re unremarkable, like any other pebbles on any other beach, but I carefully brush them off. I put them in my pocket as I turn to walk back to the car.