Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Competence – Courage – Sacrifice

It’s really difficult to put into words my experience(s) at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer - that's why this post is out or chronological order. As I planned the whole trip, it was the one place I wanted to see more than any other – possible the one place in the world I wanted to see more than any other. I visited the cemetery and visitor’s center twice – once on a crowded Sunday afternoon, again on a quiet Monday morning – and didn’t want to leave each time. The experience was overwhelming, with the combination of an incredible geographical setting, the best museum dedicated to D-Day that I visited, the dichotomy of crowded and empty, the beauty of the memorial and cemetery itself, and the overarching tribute paid to the Americans that rest there. It’s why I came to France, but more than that, it’s a major reason why I teach history.

The visitor center sets the stage for an incomparable experience. Three words dominate the lobby – Competence – Courage – Sacrifice – and the rest of the cemetery ties together those themes to tell the story of the war, the cemetery, and the men (and four women) who are laid to rest there. A tableau of the D-Day landings at the base of an endless pool overlooks the Channel. The videos and exhibits serve as both historical content and tribute, using the words of the people involved. After walking through the exhibits, the hallway where names of fallen soldiers are read hits hard, especially when you read the stories in the very sparsely decorated circular room, centered around the symbol of a battlefield death – a rifle in a ground of stones with a helmet atop of it. Exiting the center, you see a somber quote from General Mark Clark of the American Battle Monuments Commission – “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was out only conquest: all we asked was for enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead”.

The path leading out of the center brings visitors to the cliffs of Colleville, with an unbeatable view of Omaha Beach and the English Channel. Another tableau is situated in a viewing platform directly on the cliff, in between two entries to a stairway and path that takes those who chose to go down (and then back up) to the sands of Omaha. I didn’t have enough time to go down on my first visit, but in the morning, I made descended the steps alone for some reflection – on the places I had seen, what I have read and viewed, how I teach, and much more. Stepping foot on the beach in this location is much different than the other locations of Omaha I had already been, as I was alone with my camera and water bottle to collect sand from the hallowed ground. Looking up from the beach, it’s striking to think of the physical challenge the men had in taking the cliffs – not even to consider the German obstacles, mines, and munitions. Competence, courage and sacrifice rang in my head. It’s also both heartbreaking and heartwarming to think that thousands of American soldiers are buried just above, all of which paid the ultimate price in a place thousands of miles from their home. If I had to single out one spot on my entire trip that I will always remember, it is surely there.

The cemetery itself is overpowering. While exactly the same in purpose as the awesome Arlington, this cemetery is different in presentation, with over nine thousand Latin crosses and Stars of David presented with military precision and uniformity. As you wade through the sea of green and white, you see the names and ranks of men from all over the country. Sets of brothers are there, as is a father and son, buried next to each other. No single grave stands out – there are no special stones, no separate plots for dignitaries – and the only major difference is the gold lettering of Medal of Honor winners.

The memorial at the one end of the cemetery is imposing - and informative. One two sides are immense maps and historical narrative, one of the D-day landings and battle for Normandy, the other of the entire European campaign. Those two maps give the geographical narrative of the war. In the center of the memorial is a beautiful statue, “Spirit of the American Youth”, surrounded by the first line of the Battle Hymn. Behind the statue and walls is a semicircle of over 1,500 names of the missing in action from the war, some since identified.

It’s both easy and difficult to express in words the impact of the visit, both while I was there and as I look at the pictures and video. It’s striking that these Americans are buried so far away from their homes, from their loved ones, from their country. But as a mother in a documentary stated, they chose to bury their son at Normandy, thousands of miles away, because that’s where he lost his life in order for others to regain and keep their freedom.

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