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 Ryan and 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.