Utah, Omaha, and Grandpa

November 8, 2011 at 12:19 am 1 comment

On Day 16 of the great 2011 European Adventure, my mom and I woke up early, even before our inn started serving breakfast. That didn’t matter, since we’d opted out of the 7 EUR/person hotel breakfast, anyway. We knew that every little French village has a little French boulangerie, so after a quick Google, we were off to the town centre, where we feasted on delicious pains au chocolat. The only drawback to skipping hotel breakfast was the lack of coffee. The French have not embraced the coffee shop concept, so we were left with only bottles of water to fuel our drive up the coast.

Stop #1 on our packed Day 16 itinerary was Utah Beach, the westernmost tip of the D-Day beach region. We planned to drive all the way west first, then make stops as we headed back towards our hotel throughout the day. Utah Beach was one of the American sectors of the invasion, but it was not nearly as bloody at Omaha Beach, so it is not as well known. The area is much more remote, with just a memorial on the beach until a few years ago, when a museum was built. There’s also a gift shop just across the road, where they sold neat postcards of old black & white photos, and where I spent 10 minutes trying to buy two of them. The proprietress was engaged in a very exciting phone call and had little interest in taking my money. But anyway, on to the photos of Utah Beach:

Utah Beach Memorial
The day was just perfect for sightseeing—not a cloud in the sky and breezy-warmish—but the direct sunlight made photography less than ideal. Our itinerary was too busy to come back later in the day, when I wouldn’t have to shoot straight into the sun. Fortunately, I like lens flare!

Utah Beach
Once again, Utah Beach doesn’t look anything like a battlefield anymore.

Rowe Road
All of the roads around Utah Beach (and they were truly roads, not streets…some were really lanes, not roads!) were named after men that had died in the D-Day campaign.

Next up was Sainte-Mère-Église, where U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne sailed into town just before the beach invasion began. One of the paratroopers, John Steele, was caught on the spire of the church and was wounded, but played dead during the battle. He was taken prisoner by the Germans (once they figured out that he was alive), but later escaped and returned to fighting for the Allies and survived the war.

Paratrooper
The church has a permanent model of Steele attached to it.

Sainte-Mère-Église
Our early schedule had put us at Utah Beach ahead of the tourists, but we hit Sainte-Mère-Église at the same time as a couple of tour buses. We knew it would be a busy day, so we decided to skip the small museum in town and kept moving.

Omaha Museum
Our next stop was the first scheduled museum of the day, the Musée Mémorial d’Omaha Beach. The funny part about this trip through the beaches was that we never knew what to expect. For some reason, I had the idea that this museum was a brand-new, high-tech sort of thing, with light-up map murals and such. As you can see below, this museum was one of the first built after the war, and it hasn’t changed much.

Omaha Museum Display
The displays were simple exhibits of found artifacts from the war with explanatory postcards. I loved the awkward English translations. For example, this card about the mines uses the word “explosed.” The presentation may have been old-fashioned, but this museum was packed with information. I especially loved the letters on display—it was nice to connect with some of the personal stories. The main story of Omaha Beach is one that many Americans know quite well. At one time, I knew it extremely well, since my middle school social studies teachers were big war buffs and arranged for a theatre to play The Longest Day for us. Almost everyone hated it because it was so long, but I liked it so much that I watched it again the same weekend when it happened to be playing on cable.

Mannequins
The museum also featured lifesized diorama displays with mannequins. A little creepy, but retro and kind of cool. I especially liked this one, since it showed what my grandfather did as part of a communications unit. They came over after D-Day to maintain communication lines as the Allies advanced through Europe. They didn’t make movies about the communications guys, but they were an integral part of the last stage of the war. Abraham Jones Markham, my mom’s father, was one of the men who did this job.

Seeing the D-Day Beaches was important to my mom and me not only because we are history nerds who love Europe, but also because it’s a connection to her father and my grandfather. He passed away 11 years ago, and it’s still hard for me to think about him without getting emotional. My grandparents lived in Tulsa, OK, and my mom and I lived in central Illinois and then Chicago after I turned 3. We didn’t have family nearby for most of the time I was growing up, so the few times a year that we saw my grandparents were always precious times. I adored my grandparents. I would sit on Grandpa’s lap in his blue recliner, eating plums before dinner while we watched Jeopardy, until I was much too big for it, I’m sure. He didn’t talk about himself very much with me. I had an assignment in 8th grade to interview a veteran, and I’m thankful for that, otherwise I might not have ever heard him talk about his time in the war. He was quiet, but always seemed so strong to me; he was sick my entire life, but never seemed frail until the very end of his life. I’m sure that his wife and children knew his faults just as well as his strengths, but to me, he was perfect. I never saw him do anything wrong, unless you count sneaking a piece of chocolate that was strictly against his diabetic diet. I loved him dearly, and I only wish that I’d had time with him when I was older.

So being at Omaha Beach with my mom was a very special moment. I didn’t want to cry all the way through our busy day, but after I had time to reflect, I understood what a blessing it was to be able to see the Normandy Beaches and to be able to make the trip with my mom.

Omaha Beach Sculpture
Omaha Beach itself has two memorials at St-Laurent-sur-Mer, right on the same strip of beach. This is a sculpture called “Les Braves” by Anilore Banon, a French artist. Both memorials are dedicated to the Americans that liberated the region. The three sections of this sculpture, which was commissioned for the 60th anniversary in 2004, represent “The Wings of Hope,” “The Rise of Freedom,” and “The Wings of Fraternity.” Mom and I both thought it was a beautiful tribute and I found it to be very moving. Although quite a few people were milling about, everyone was very quiet and respectful.

Omaha Beach Memorial
This is the first memorial, built on street level, above the beach. I’d seen this monument before in photographs, and seeing it in person was so compelling. The text at the top is in French, with the English below: “The Allied Forces landing on this shore which they call Omaha Beach liberate Europe – June 6th 1944.”

I still have one more D-Day museum and the cemeteries, but they will have to wait for another post.

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Entry filed under: Churches, D-Day, Europe, France, Normandy, Photos.

O Canada La Tapisserie de Bayeux

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Anne Coffman  |  November 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I doubt that I can write something as eloquent as this post, but I also want to express how important it was to finally be able to visit the D-Day beaches, in memory of my dad. Melanie is right in that he never talked much about the war, as I think was common for veterans of his generation, but occasionally he and my mom would mention how wonderful it would be if they were able to visit Europe–England/Ireland/Scotland, for their heritage, and then of course France and the D-Day beaches. They never reached this goal, though. We were a middle-class family, with plenty of bills and not much extra money and, to be honest, for the majority of their lives my parents put all their resources into their two children–my brother Bill and me. We benefited greatly from their unselfishness. I finally understood, far later than I should have, just how much they sacrificed so that we could have as many advantages as possible.

    Anyway, by the time they had some disposable income, into their reitrement and after my brother and I were grown, then my dad’s diabetes started catching up with him, and European travel really wasn’t realistic. I don’t think that he or my mom really minded too much, though. That was the thing with my dad–as Melanie said, of course he wasn’t perfect, and like everyone he had his strengths and weaknesses. But what made him stand out was his quiet faith, his simplicity, his humility, and his unselfishness. He loved his family, wanted the best for them, and truly didn’t dwell on his own needs at all. Even though his health was poor for a number of years, he rarely complained, and was very content with his life. I remember this when I’m around people who complain a lot about little things, and when I’m tempted to do the same.

    So–it was wonderful to see those beaches and to travel through areas where he might have been. I hope that it’s not too selfish to have experienced the visit in his place. it’s only because of him and my mom that I’m in a position to have been able to make this trip. It’s because they supported me in my dreams and goals that I was able to study world lanuages, travel abroad at a young age, keep traveling throughout my life, and raise a child who would also love to travel. So thanks, Dad. This wonderful day at the D-Day beaches was for you.

    Reply

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A serial road tripper chronicles her adventures.

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