All cemeteries are sacred places, but there is a special poignancy about a certain windswept military cemetery that lies above the English Channel in northern France. Buried there are 9,387 soldiers killed during the invasion of Normandy during World War II. Row upon row of sons, husbands, and fathers rest in this peaceful spot where the only sounds are the raucous call of seagulls and the muted crash of waves.
The serene atmosphere is a contrast to the violence that reigned here on June 6, 1944. On that date—better known as D-Day—Allied forces launched the largest amphibious landing in history on the coast of Normandy, a massive assault that included 156,000 soldiers, 7,000 ships, and nearly 12,000 aircraft. On the beach below where the orderly marble headstones now stand, thousands of men lost their lives. While that stretch of sand has a French name, it is far better known by the designation given it by Allied military commanders: Omaha Beach.
A trip to Normandy shows that more than just religious sites inspire pilgrimages. Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery above it are hallowed not because of their connection to a saint, but because of the ordinary men who fought and gave their lives here.
Other battlefields have a similar air of hushed reverence—Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, for example, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana—but the D-Day sites of Normandy possess a particular power because they are part of the living memory of so many Americans. Even if we have no direct connection to the men who fought on these beaches, many of us have traveled to this spot in our imaginations through television and film. We know about the bravery of those young men who walked into gunfire as they came across the sand, watching their comrades fall all around them as the water turned red with blood. Heroism is a concept we often trivialize in our culture, but in Normandy we honor genuine bravery.
Each year thousands of people tour the D-Day sites of northern France. They retrace the route taken by the soldiers on the beaches, not only on Omaha but also on Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches. They stand high above the ocean at Pointe du Hoc, seeing the ground that still bears the deep crevices created by bombs as they marvel at the bravery of the U.S. Army Rangers who climbed the point’s sheer cliff amid enemy fire. They walk among the graves at the American cemetery, reading the names of the young soldiers, listening to the seagulls, smelling the salt air, and imagining what it was like here on that that June day in 1944.
The number of veterans coming here is dwindling, say local residents. By now many in that “greatest generation” have died, while most of those who remain are too old and infirm to make the journey. But other visitors are taking their place, as the World War II sites continue to exercise fascination. Some come because of movies like Saving Private Ryanand Band of Brothers, action films that make them want to see the landscape behind the stories. Others tour the D-Day sites simply as a way to spend an afternoon while on holiday.
Those who come here on pilgrimage have deeper reasons. Many have a father or grandfather who fought in Normandy, and their visit gives them an insight into their loved one’s experiences in the war. Even those without a direct personal connection can make a meaningful pilgrimage to Normandy, a trip that honors the courage of a generation now nearly gone and makes us ponder a war that shaped much of our modern world.
For more information see the French Tourist Office.