Living in Europe has been described as inhabiting one large museum. While many eras of history speak from its cobbled streets and centuries-old buildings, few resound as clearly in the American ear as that of World War II.
And nothing of any era spoke to this American quite like the beaches of Normandy.
Seventy-three years ago today, as the Allied troops dug their first foothold on an occupied Continent, you wouldn’t have been able to hear your own thoughts, much less any voices. Visit them today — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — and you can’t get over the quiet, the stillness, the jarring serenity across their vastness. At low tide, and viewed with the knowledge of what lay between the invading heroes in their boats and the machine guns firing at them, the shore is such a span from ocean to hillside as to seem measurable in miles, not yards.
From atop the hills, among the pock-marked plateau that still bears some of the concrete and steel and barbed wire left by its one-time occupiers, the job looks even more daunting. At Pointe du Hoc, a name etched prominently in the lore of the legendary Army Rangers, daunting doesn’t cover it. You wouldn’t believe anyone had done what they did, if they hadn’t.
Moving inland are the hedgerows behind which friend or foe may have lain, offering one little more than sound to base a judgment as to which was which. And there are the churches: The most famous one, at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, still has a paratrooper (statue) dangling from its spire. The one at Angoville-au-Plain has bloodstains on the pews where the wounded were treated, and stained-glass windows depicting the screaming eagle of the 101st Airborne; outside its doors is a marker commemorating the spot as Place Toccoa, as in Georgia, as in the place where members of the 101st trained.
From those beaches to those churches to the crosses and stars at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial — the nine thousand three hundred eighty-seven crosses and stars, which amazingly enough makes it only our third-largest overseas gravesite from that war — a spiritual sense pervades. The religiously inclined may attribute it to a calm granted by the Almighty, to whom on the eve of the invasion many a soldier prayed, seeking to hear, as President Reagan recounted 40 years later on the part of Gen. Matthew Ridgway, “the promise God made to Joshua: ‘I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.’ ”
Those men, and that place, surely earned such a calm.
(Note: This was originally published June 6, 2014. It went down the memory hole when we changed blogging platforms, but we’ve recovered the text so I’m republishing it today.)