June 7, 2014
I’ve been thinking about the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy this week. I can’t find the pictures I took there in 2009, but here are notes from my journal and memories from childhood.
August 5, 2009
Much of the day was taken up in train travel from Interlaken, Switzerland to Bayeux, France, in Normandy, the best day to see the D-Day beaches. The beaches and countryside are one of the few places I specifically wanted to see on this trip. For the most part, I’m completely happy to be surprised at whatever we stumble across on our travels, and for the rest Lisa has researched well in order to make the most of our travel time. I’m never disappointed by her itinerary and she puts a lot of time into studying maps, train tables, Rick Steves, and surfing the internet to find rooms.
I’ve always been a casual student of World War II, dating back to my earliest research—playing with G.I. Joe “action figures” and Sgt. Rock Comics, which I bought at the little grocery store that shared a parking lot with my church. The store opened at noon on Sundays and as soon as church was out I headed straight for the magazine racks.
Sergeant Rock was a grizzled platoon sergeant, hardened from growing up in the steel mills of Pittsburg, who’d enlisted after Pearl Harbor and fought in North Africa, Italy, and now leads a group of stereotypical soldiers—Easy Company—across France and toward Germany and victory. Sergeant Rock was always looking out for his men, which included all the types you might find in a war movie from the 50s and early 60s. There was the Indian, Little Sure Shot, an Apache sniper who decorated his helmet with feathers; Bulldozer, a massive corporal who wore sleeveless uniforms to show off his arms—of course he toted the heavy machine gun; Wildman, with flaming red beard who was reckless in battle; Jackie Johnson, a black ex-heavyweight boxing champion; and Ice Cream Soldier—cool in combat. Easy Company was always outnumbered and poorly supplied, and the Germans were always sort of superhuman fanatics.
The Rock stories were poignant anti-war stories—at least when I was reading them, during the war in Viet Nam in the late 60s and early 70s—designed to show the waste and senselessness of war. The stories all blend together, but one I remember was about a “shave tail” lieutenant, a “90 day wonder,” a college guy who’d gone straight from college through officer school and was assigned a platoon of veteran enlisted men who hated officers because they had no combat experience. Anyway, the officer kept getting the platoon in trouble and Rock kept getting them out. The lieutenant was arrogant and talked down to Rock, but in the end he sacrificed himself and saved the unit and earned the respect of his men. The stories always ended with a note in the final panel: “Make War No More.” Thinking back on it now, I realize the degree that those stories helped influence my attitudes toward social class and war.
After Sgt. Rock, though, my attitude toward the war was expanded further—you might say blown—by a Clint Eastwood movie called Kelley’s Heroes. The film came out in 1970, and I saw it in the theatre at least a couple of times (back then we used to hide in the theatre to catch the second showing). I would have been 9 years old, which seems young to me now, considering the movie was about a cynical, jaded Eastwood, a former lieutenant who’d been busted for following orders to attack the wrong hill, now a corporal bent on making a profit out of the war. Essentially, he pulls off the perfect crime by convincing his platoon to rob a bank where the Nazis have hoarded all the gold they’ve stolen during the war. It’s the perfect crime because the bank is behind enemy lines, and in breaking through the lines Kelly inadvertently jumpstarts a stalled offensive. My favorite character in the movie was Donald Sutherland, a pre-hippie tank commander named Oddball who was hiding out from the war, drinking wine and eating cheese and smoking marijuana with his men.
Needless to say, neither Sgt. Rock nor Corporal Kelly were realistic portrayals of the war in France, but they forged indelible impressions.
August 5, 2009
Interlaken: We woke early after not much sleep and walked to the train station. Initially, we caught a crowded commuter train from Interlaken to Bern, but from Bern to Paris we had a first class car virtually all to ourselves. Our four seats had a table in between. We had stocked up on food and ate croissants and cheese spread. I napped a bit and Julia Rose and Stella watched Ever After on my computer, a movie they probably watched a dozen or more times that summer. We had a two hour layover in Paris, which involved changing train stations, taking the subway from Gare de Lyon to Gare de St. Lazare. At St. Lazare we had to wait for the train to Bayeux, so we sat on our luggage or on the ground. Lisa spent the time finding a room for a few days later, when we would return to Paris and fly to Ireland. At one point I had to go into the desk to give Lisa the PIN code on my credit card, and I left Julia Rose and Stella to “guard” our bags. They were freshly turned 9 and 7, and after seeing Lisa and me fight off gypsy pickpockets in Pisa, they had a new understanding of the fact that there are bad people in the world. I watched the girls out the window of the station as they busied themselves pulling the bags closer together and standing guard.
We caught our train to Bayeux. From the station we walked about twenty or thirty minutes to our hotel, pulling our rolling suitcases behind us. Julia Rose and Stella have been troopers this summer, learning to negotiate sidewalks and cobblestone streets and make the long walks from train stations to lodging. Often they’ll pull a suitcase with one hand and clutch a doll, Natchez or Presley, with the other arm.
The town is charming, fairly small and the people are friendly. Our hotel is set above a bar/café on a one lane street lined with shops, just a block off the main street. The owner led us up a narrow circular stairway, very steep, to the fourth floor, where we had two small rooms, each with a double bed, a sink, and a chair. We opened the windows to air out the rooms and enjoyed the busy street sounds from below. After a supper of crepes we went back to the motel to pare down our luggage for the Ryan Air flight to Ireland. The flights are cheap, but luggage fees are high, so outgrown and worn out clothes, unessential papers, even shoes were discarded. I even threw away the pair of Tevas I’d been trekking in all summer, figuring that the last few days in Ireland would be cold and wet.
August 6, 2009
We woke up and finished packing, then walked to the car rental place near the train station. It was cloudy, cool and humid, promising rain. We figured out how to get to Normandy through trial and error, as usual, with Lisa reading the map and me watching out for traffic, taking the round-abouts two or three times to make sure we were spinning out in the right direction.
The French countryside is quite and beautiful, looking just the way it does in movies, with small fields, hedgerows, and rock wall fencerows. The land is well-tended, with little of the crap you’d see strewn around most American farms. We found Omaha Beach, which saw the bloodiest fighting on D-Day, and walked along the beach a short way. The beach is a strip of sand with a bluff rising abruptly. We found an old German mortar bunker made out of concrete and set into the dune. From there we went to a private D-Day museum. It was hard to make the beach match up with what I’d imagined from dozens of war films, mainly Saving Private Ryan. That makes sense though, because there’s no way to make sense of what happened that day, no matter how many museums you walk through or how many movies you see.
The museum was a bit cheesy, but fun. It had a good collection of artifacts, including uniforms, weapons, equipment, and vehicles used by both sides in the war. The girls seemed to enjoy it because there were dozens of scenes set up using mannequins. For me, the scenes depicted this way were a bit surreal, but vivid.
We drove to the American cemetery, intending to have a picnic, but those aren’t allowed out of respect. We ate in an overflow parking lot with dozens of other people doing the same thing, having a car picnic because of the light rainfall.
I’ve seen pictures of the cemetery many times, and obviously the scenes from Saving Private Ryan have dominated my recent imagination about the place, but nothing could prepare me for the real thing. The American cemetery is on the top of the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. We entered through the museum dedicated to the war dead, going through metal detectors and bag searches. This museum is nothing like the earlier museum we’d visited. It is full of informative panels, many of them featuring video footage of the planning and training for the invasion of France. There was even video of the victorious entry into Paris two months later. A couple of films focused on the sacrifices of D-Day heroes. It was sobering to watch the biographies of these men, interviews from their families, and details of their exploits. At the end of the museum we walked through a tunnel where the names of those buried are read aloud. There is a final exhibit of a battlefield grave marker—a rifle stuck in the ground by it’s bayonet with a helmet resting on the stock.
We walked the grounds in a sprinkling rain, which seemed appropriate for the mood of the place, reading the markers. The cemetery was busy, and many of the people there, so far off the beaten tourist track, were on a personal pilgrimage. Walking these grounds made me extremely proud, but overwhelmingly sad. Going from a day spent at Dachau a week ago to this cemetery today drove home a tiny fraction of the scope of suffering from that time period. Words fail to really capture what this place means.
After the cemetery we drove back to Baueux in the rain. I dropped the family off at the train station, then drove the rental car back to the Renault station.
June 7, 2010
This week I’ve been listening to NPR stories about the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the soldiers returning to the scene. Very soon there will be no one left who actually fought in the war.