Monday, June 22, 2015

Normandy, France (part 2) Utah Beach on D-Day 71st Anniversary

To be in Normandy, France in the first week of June you enter another chapter of time. 1944 Vintage jeeps, motorcycles, and trucks from World War II are ubiquitous on the streets and winding village roads. Many people, including children and even dogs, are dressed in the l940's style with U.S., Canadian, and British uniforms. Women have their hair tied up, with bright red lipstick, and stockings with a seam down the back. There are American, French, Canadian, and UK flags of every size waving everywhere, with 1940's Big Band music being blasted on the streets. Emotions are high, with celebratory festivities, parades, ceremonies, and picnics. But there is also a somber air of honoring those who sacrificed their lives on the beaches of Juno, Spear, Gold, Utah, and Omaha.

Most every town and village in Normandy are remembering the D-Day invasion in the early morning of June 6, 1944. When my son and I came to remember my father-in-law who landed on Omaha beach, it didn't matter if we did not speak French. We danced, sang, and walked the shores and villagers with everyone else. Everyone, even the children, seemed to perceive that the simple act of remembering and honoring the past was important. The festivities were observed with purposeful meaning, but also mixed with fun and merriment. We would not have missed it.

About 21,000 troops landed on Utah Beach, with only 197 deaths on the beach--far less than Omaha. The paratroopers started landing at 1:30 in the morning ,and then amphibious landings began at about 6:30 am

Just before we all went to the beach to light the lanterns, we were able to listen to a U.S. veteran who landed on Utah Beach 71 years before. He said something I will never forget, "I did not want to get out of the landing craft that night. I wanted to crawl under the craft, and never come out. I was very scared. But I had no choice. I did it anyways. Let me remind you that war is terrible, and I still have nightmares about it. I pray every day that there will be peace in this world. "

Peter, my son, next to the replica landing equipment that was on Utah Beach.
Peter, with the curator of the Utah Beach Memorial Museum, as they prepare to light the lantern. On the night of June 5, the museum provided hundreds of lanterns (one for two adults). People were organized into groups, and the leaders of the group instructed hundreds of people how to safely light the lanterns, and push them to the sky.
They are lighting the lantern, to then be pushed up to the sky.
Peter is trying to help someone else push their lantern to the sky. It was not very windy, and some of the lanterns fell to the sand and in the water, reminiscent of that same night 71 years ago. I will never forget that night as I watched my son push up the lantern to the sky, in remembrance of his grandfather and all those who bravely landed on those shores. It was a night when the heaven and the earth touched for a few moments in time, witnessed by all the thousands of people that night.
Starry Night Over the Rhone.jpg
It was a night when the stars blazed with memory and light, reminding me of a Van Gogh painting, A Starry Night on the Rhone.
Some people on the beach about to push their lantern into the air on June 5 at Utah Beach. We all gazed as lanterns navigated their way into the sky. Some of them had a tough time floating away, and we all cheered as they ascended.

One thing that was so moving was that the paratroopers knew that if the sea landings failed, they would be in enemy territory--with no one to back them up. They jumped anyways. With about 70 pounds of equipment on their back, many of them drowned.

There is a mannequin with a parachute still hanging from the church today in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In the early morning of June 6, there were 13,000 paratroopers that dropped onto the Normandy coast from the 82nd Airborne and 101st Division. One aerial bomb ignited a fire in the town square that night, with the church bells ringing to alert the town of the fire. Both villagers and German troopers helped in a bucket brigade to squelch the fire. Many paratroopers died that night because they were easy targets since many were awake with the fire. It was supposed to be a secret, quiet mission. Instead, the paratroopers were a surprise to the village in the middle of the night. They were dropped into enemy territory to soften the blows and obtain the needed targets, especially the Cherbourg port. Some were scattered in the countryside, and many drowned in the rivers. Within the week, they were able to capture and liberate the Cherbourg peninsula. There is a moving museum there in the town that chronicles their dangerous, brave feats.

In the early night of June 6, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne jumped from the skies all around the Normandy coast. This is a picture of John Steele who landed on the Sainte-Mere-Eglise  stone church. He is remembered in the movie The Longest Day.

The French are passionate about remembering to keep the memories alive, even now that many of the veterans are gone. 

Children in France are told stories that rekindle the past. Parents, teachers, and community leaders all join together to keep the history alive in the young. They want them to remember the young men who gave their all to liberate Normandy, and the rest of France.

Dogs were even dressed up for the occasion.
Some of my own children on Halloween in St. Louis, Missouri. Grandpa's World War II uniform was brought out on many occasions to remember. They loved to reinact on every occasion they could remember their grandpa.

Scottish bagpipers in Sainte-Mere-Eglise to remember the Scottish man, Bill Millin, who played his bagpipes on the day of the invasion. He was memorialized in the movie, The Longest Day.

Here is a picture of Jonathan, another son, in France at the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Reinactors have been coming now for decades to this coast to remember the past. I think they always will.

There are rein actors all over Normandy during the first week of June. In many villages, the rein actors have encampments, where they stay in tents for the week with their fellow comrades. Some of them came from Belgium, the U.S. and Germany to remember what happened 71 years ago.

More people dressed up in 1940's attire at the Utah Beach Museum.

As  a band played big band music in the background, many couples danced in front of the the Utah Beach museum. They were there, dressed in 1940's attire, to capture and remember a time that they knew liberated their country.

Flowers stuck in the sand on Utah Beach, among the seaweed--to memorialize and remember those who fell on those beaches.
The breakfast that we woke up to on June 6 in our gite (a French home that is rented out for holidays) We knew it would be a special day to remember forever because everyone around us, all these new friends, helped us remember.

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