Elie Wiesel said: For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. We must and this is mine.

Photography: John McCutcheon
Photography: John McCutcheon


Photography: John McCutcheon
Photography: John McCutcheon

I ADMIT THAT I visited the American Museum and Cemetery in Normandy with trepidation.  I assumed I’d immediately descend into one of my bawling jags and leave the place looking like I’d thrown a two year old’s tantrum.  But to my relief, the effects were completely different.




The spirit of freedom.


All of these sweep into one’s soul.

Whatever group designed this memorial did so to uplift the human spirit.

First we entered the visitor’s center/memorial museum.   After a complete security check (I had to remove my headscarf) and a register, computer terminals provide data on each US soldier who died in the Normandy Invasion.  I haven’t been able to find an agreement of numbers of those who died, were wounded, or MIA.

Rather than plunging visitors into despair, a theatre and exhibits trace the beginning planning of the Invasion from September 1939 to the execution on June 6, 1944, and the days following.  This is incredible.

British General Montgomery had asked for five divisions for the Invasion, Eisenhower promised three, the end results were 40.  Mingled in with the planning and execution of the Invasion are many personal stories of specific soldiers.  Some of these exhibits are more personalized with a particular soldier’s few belongings. Pictures of the Niland brothers on which Saving Private Ryan is based are paneled on one wall.

Just viewing the engineering strategy of the Invasion is a solid mind-boggling experience.  Inspite of all this planning, some plans didn’t work.  (I can’t quote the remark verbatim but what comes to mind is all war plans are valid until the first shot is fired.  If anyone knows the quote and who made it, please give it in Comments.  I have often wanted to use it.)  The most intense fighting was Omaha Beach, often referred to as “Bloody Omaha.”   Inspite of the carnage on that beach on D-Day, Omaha was secured in six hours.  Unbelievable.   Estimates run from 2,500 to 4,800 soldiers died on Omaha beach alone.

The museum is easily a two hour fascination.

Leaving the museum we walked by an infinity pool that appears to drop off onto the beach and ocean beyond.  One hundred and seventy two acres located above Omaha Beach comprise the American Cemetery, memorials, and buildings.  France gave this site to the States permanently.  The Cemetery itself is flanked by two colonades.  One side of the colonade gives the Invasion maps in relief and accompanying text on panels.  The other side traces the Battle of Europe.  Centered in this colonade is a figure symbolizing freedom.  It feels more like the soaring of souls to heaven.  The other colonade provides a quiet outdoor chapel.

Brilliant white marble crosses and Stars of David mark the burial sites of 9,387 soldiers and provide the names, death dates, and home states.  The back sides give the dog tag numbers.  The symmetry of the crosses is spectacular.   The crosses, rich green grass, flower beds, and walkways awaken each visitor to the enormous debt and honor we owe to the memory of each soldier.  All seem to symbolize that life is freedom.

Behind one of the colonades is a curving wall with the names and states of 1,157 soldiers who were never found.  A knob by a name indicates that the body was later found.  There are few.

General George S. Patton said,  “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died.  Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” This cemetery and memorial accomplishes that.

Notes:  I’m serious about the war/first shot fired remark.  The cemetery, memorials, and museum are free and are pristinely maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  To get there from Bayeux, simply follow the signs.  The way is well marked.  The German Military Cemetery was the original burial site for the American Cemetery.  Later the bodies were moved when the American Cemetery was created.  I couldn’t help considering the huge loss of lives.  These were young men who had probably never been out of the States.  Yet they gave their lives for the freedom of another country in a war started by another country in order to save the freedom of their own country.  Estimates are 50 million people died in WWII. 

 Elie Wiesel said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” 

 This is mine.


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