Normandy coastline, France — Elizabeth Kelly is standing in front of the gravestone of the grandfather she never met.
She’s far from home—as was he as a young Lieutenant from Chicago fighting in World War II. His name was Forrest Kelly and he’d left behind a wife and two young children.
We are at the famous Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha Beach, where the massive allied assault on the Normandy on June 6, 1944 aimed to liberate France and defeat Nazi Germany.
Before dawn on June 6, three airborne divisions landed by parachute and gliders. Allied naval forces followed. Beginning at 6:30 a.m., six US British and Canadian divisions landed on Utah, Omaha, Gold Juno and Sword Beaches in history’s greatest amphibious assault.
To reach the plateau where the American Cemetery stands, troops fought across an open area and up steep bluffs. By the end of the day, Americans had control of Omaha Beach and the tide of the war was turned.
But the costs were high. Just here, there are 9,387 headstones, including 1,557 unknown soldiers, 45 sets of brothers and three medal of honor recipients, including Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the president and a 57 year old general who led his troops ashore on D Day and then died three weeks later of a heart attack. He is buried beside his bother Quentin who died in France in World War 1.
We are touring the World War II sites with Ron Van Dijk, who oversees the European tours for Austin Adventures, an American company, and offers bike tours—including several summer departures for families—in Normandy.
Van Dijk says he thinks it helps to cycle from site to site—typically 30 miles or so per day, though there is always a van if you get tired—“because it gives you time to think.” For kids, especially teens and tweens, he suggests, “They realize what war is all about…They think war is exciting, a big adventure… this changes their minds.”
But the time on the bikes looking at the beautiful countryside, the famous black and white Norman cows, the lambs, the stone farmhouses, cycling through small villages helps to gain some perspective both about those who lived through the war but also to relax. Many of the roads in the countryside are named after Allied soldiers who died in Normandy. “Sometimes you are so emotionally drained, you can’t take any more in,” he explains. “When you cycle, you think of other things.”
We have dinner at the beautiful Michelin-starred Chateau de Sully outside the famous town of Bayeaux where the bike tour stays for three nights—the kids love the pool; the parents the chance to get a massage and everyone the food. We feast on local roasted chicken, pork with Andouille sausage and the best part—a selection of the famous Norman cheeses. The chef, we learn, works with small local purveyors and producers. Did I mention the 500-bottle wine list?
The chateau with just 13 rooms and another 9 in the adjacent manor house was built in the 18th century by the Count du Sully who built it for his mistress. During World War II, it served as headquarters of the both Germans and the allies. Owner Jean Marie Batran says families are here often in summer where they can alternate the famous sites with visiting a cheese factory or see cider being made—Normandy has some 80 different kinds of Apples–or the famous Bayeaux tapestry dating from the 11th century, more than 70 meters long that tells the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings.
Ron Van Dijk tries to show us the famous WWII sites in the order of how D-Day unfolded.
We start in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where just before midnight the men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions jumped into the darkness. Many died. They landed in the trees, in flooded marshes, in a school teacher’s garden (that street is now named for Private Murphy). John Steele landed on the bell tower of the church where he remained dangling, playing dead. He first was captured but then when the town was taken by the allies, he was freed. Today, you can still see a model of him hanging from the bell tower. His character was played by the actor Red Buttons in The Longest Day, an epic movie of D-Day filmed here in 1961.
The excellent Musee Airborne here tells the story of those brave young men. Kids can clamor through a glider that was used for the first time in large scale conflict and se
e –more than 4,000 men were sent into the battle in 512 gliders on D-Day and the next day.
There is a Waco Cg-4a glider—the only one in France and a Douglas C-47 that was used to drop the paratroopers. The glider has models of the paratroopers inside making it easy to see what it would have been like aboard. We see everything from knives and bullets to battered helmets to the baseball mitt and balls the GIS played with there are charms, soap and tiny packages of cigarettes, even smith brothers cough drops, The 101st Airborne lost 30 per cent of its 15,000 men and most of their equipment.
St Marie Eglise was liberated by the paratroopers in the early hours of the morning of June 6 and it is clear the French were grateful.
Lucky for us, it’s market day in the town just outside the museum so we feast on giant local sausages served on long baguettes.
What is so wonderful about touring these sites is–besides the museums—the kids and grownups can actually see where the action took place—on the beaches, in the huge German fortifications called together “The Atlantic Wall” hat stretched all along the coast from Holland to Western France. You see concrete bunkers with giant 150 mm guns in place on top of a cliff overlooking the channel just west of Omaha beach. Kids clamor up on top and then peer through the lookout over the coast at deLlongues sur Mer just as the German soldiers did just before D Day. This was a place of fierce fighting. There were 8,000 bunkers built along 2,700 miles of coastline.
Nearby at Arromanches, we see a terrific new 20-minute movie shown on nine screens –360-degrees that tells the story of the 100 days of Normandy with archived footage from around the world. The film, the filmmakers says, is a tribute to the men who died and to the 20,000 European civilians killed during the liberation of Western Europe.
We go to La Pointe Du Hoc, halfway between Omaha and Utah beaches topped with a heavy battery of guns protected by concrete bunkers. This had to be taken in order to free the beaches. Some 225 highly trained Army Rangers had to scale the high cliffs using rope ladders. They didn’t know the German guns had been moved inland but two of the rangers later will found and destroyed them.
We visit the terrific Utah Beach D-Day Landing Museum, which even has a kids activity book in English as well as French with a soldier named “Jim” who tells the story, explaining how the soldiers had been training and planning for months—the idea to land 150,000 soldiers on five beaches. “We will either land by ship or be dropped by parachute,” he says.
Outside the museum are many monuments installed over the decades since D-Day, but none more poignant than a simple pink granite obelisk with the inscription:
THIS MONUMENT WAS ERECTED BY THE
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
IN HUMBLE TRIBUTE TO ITS SONS
WHO LOST THEIR LIVES
IN THE LIBERATION OF THESE BEACHES
JUNE 6, 1944
There are explanations like a “battery” — a collection of pieces of artillery – and the Goliath — a miniature guided tank that the Germans used against the allied fighters. The Utah Beach museum is on the site of a former German blockhouse and it was where the first assault craft landed. They explain that in the villages, shops were nearly empty and how resistance fighters were getting organized.
“A lot of us never had any real combat experience,” Jim tells the kids in this activity book. At the museum, you see even a soldier’s watch which stopped just before the landing, a B-26 and things Americans brought to France like chewing gum, jelly and tins of coffee. There’s a landing craft that ferried the soldiers to from their ships.
For months after the landing, Utah Beach was used to ferry provisions, fuel, ammunition to the front lines.
I’m glad that as on the bike trips, we take a little break—for oysters in the small port town of Port-en-Bessin where we head for the market where a young woman opens two dozen for us. They cost less than 12 Euros—a bargain in any country. (We had paid $40 Euros at a small Parisian restaurant the week before!)
I’m also glad that Van Dijk insists on a stop at the Ryes War Cemetery—the only one where British and German soldiers are buried in the same place. Each of the British stones has an inscription from his family. “I say Fred is not Dead, he is just away” said the grave of F.I Hillyard from the Royal Engineers who was 23 when he died in August 1944.
“In loving memory of Frank, husband of violet, Daddy of Pauine,” says the grave of 29-year-old F.T Wilcott.
“Sleep on Dear son, in a far off country,” for another 20 year old who died in July 1944.
“Always remembered by his loving wife and baby son,” Ronald J Richardson was just 25 when he died. Some 630 British, 21 Canadians, 1 polish soldier and 326 Germans are buried here—one Jewish British soldier next to a German.
At the American Cemetery, there are no ages— just their names, rank and their states from every state and Washington DC. The remains of 14,000 others who were originally buried here were ultimately sent back home. They are white crosses and Stars of David.
A father and son are buried side by side as are many brothers. There is a Garden of the Missing, inscribed with the name, rank and State of 1557 missing. Most of those who are buried here died in the D-Day invasion or the weeks afterward. There is a soldier named Pew from New York who died June 24, 1944; Burkhart from Illinois, July 7 and O’Dell from Minnesota on August 24.
We look out at the beaches where so many died where the Germans had put up obstacles made of iron and logs driven into the sand, as well as mines.
It is a very spiritual place—and a very sad one. “I don’t know much about my grandfather,” Elizabeth Kelly said, adding her grandparents had met because her grandmother Caroline was an Army nurse. “My father was too young to remember him.”
Today, there are two more Forrests in the family, she said.—they would have been his grandson and great grandson. Her cousin Forrest Kelly, she said, brought his children here and encouraged her to visit while she was in Paris.
“Think not upon their passing,” it is inscribed on the memorial at the cemetery. “Remember the glory of their spirit.”
I think of all the generations of their families who have followed—who didn’t know them