Interesting image, isn’t it? This is the honored effigy of John Steele, the paratrooper of America’s 82nd Airborne who, on that fateful night in 1944, was unlucky enough to land on the St. Mère Eglise Church steeple, and dangling by his chute, hung there for two hours while the Americans and Germans fought bitterly below. Steele was wounded by flak in the foot, but played dead so the Germans would stop trying to shoot him as he hung helplessly. Two hours after landing on the steeple, the Germans cut him down and claimed him as a prisoner of war, but he managed to escape and found his way back to the Americans. At dawn on June 6, 1944, just hours after the paratroopers landed in and around the little town, St. Mère Eglise became first town liberated by the Allied Forces. This effigy hangs on the church steeple throughout every summer (and often in spring, as well) to honor the paratroopers and other allied forces who gave the town back to her inhabitants.
Last week, as I traveled through the area of Normandy that suffered greatly as the Allied Forces of World War II fought to liberate the country, I often found myself with my hand at my neck or mouth, teary-eyed and proud to be an American. The people of Normandy have not forgotten. They love the Americans, and indeed all the nations that sent their sons and daughters to help them regain their homes and lives.
Caen: A Memorial to Peace
Caen endured tremendous damage throughout June and most of July 1944. The Allies tried unsuccessfully to liberate the city for over a month after the landings. The Allied Forces’ bombings of Caen and the Nazis’ fierce resistance devastated it, and it was not fully liberated until July 18. There was initially resentment of the Allies for having so thoroughly decimated the city, and it was not completely rebuilt until 1960; nevertheless, Caen now has a large memorial dedicated to peace, and the flags of the allied nations fly outside it, right near the heart of the city.
A What Harbor??
Winston Churchill knew the Allies must have harbors in the English Channel because the Channel’s strong currents would impede the ability to offload material and troops. Manmade harbors were constructed with flexible steel that was towed across the Channel from England, and several of these “mulberry harbors” were built just after the landings in early June. A storm just two weeks later destroyed all except the one at Arromanches-les-Bains. You can see the remains of the mulberry harbor from the museum there, just on the waterfront.
The Original Reality Film
A little way up the hill from the town is Arromanches 360, a movie theatre in the round. There I watched an 18 minute film created from archival footage of the landings, shot by war correspondents, mixed with footage of the same locations today. The images are hauntingly raw and heart-breakingly real. Near the end of the film is a scene of troops crossing a bridge, a grainy black and white image that communicates the stress, fear and danger of the war. The scene morphs into a clear, color film of a bride, groom, musicians and the rest of the wedding party joyfully crossing what is obviously the same bridge on a brilliantly sunny day. The viewer is left with the very powerful sense that the people in the region know what the Allies returned to them: the ability to live normally. It was hard not to just weep.
Later that day, I made it to the American Cemetery. The site is enormous, covering nearly two hundred acres, and because it was pouring rain and cold, I didn’t see nearly all of it. Nine thousand men and women are buried on this hallowed ground just above the site of the initial sea landing on Omaha Beach, and the rows upon rows of crosses and stars of David attest to my country’s contribution to the efforts to defeat fascism and liberate a continent. Guides are available to escort relatives to particular graves. There is a memorial wall with over 1500 names of those missing in action from the landings. A chapel allows visitors a place to sit quietly and pray. It is one of the many places on the D-Day beaches tour to which I am determined to return, in better weather, so I can give in to my propensity toward pensiveness and linger in the shadow of these selfless men and women.
So, should you go?
My advice to those considering going is very simple: GO. The region is filled with memorials to the different military forces that contributed to the liberation of France and, indeed, all of Europe. It is too much to see in the few days I allotted, so pick a decent, inexpensive hotel or gite (sort of a B&B) to make your “home base,” and spend four to six days touring the different sites. For sure go to St. Mere Eglise, the Caen Memorial, and Arromanches 360, and then be sure to visit the memorials specific to your country’s contribution. Take Kleenex. Take your kids. Take time to think about it all. And take a moment or two, when you stop for lunch, gas, or a snack, to give a smile to the people of Normandy who continue to appreciate, after over half a century, the price other countries paid for their good and for the good of the world.