Visiting Omaha Beach is s a little different than taking a trip to Lexington Green, Ellis Island, or many other historical locations. It’s a beach – a long one at that (20+ km), and there are only a few structures on the beach itself that still exist today. The best place to view the beach is from the American Military Cemetery (a later post), but there are many places where you can simply park and walk on or along the beach – that’s what I did in the evening.
I started at the June 6 Omaha Beach Museum, one of two private museums dedicated to Bloody Omaha (I didn’t hit the other one). The museum was pretty straightforward, with a ton of artifacts and mannequins set up in military dioramas. There are no bells or whistles here, just some cool militaria (especially some examples of obstacles found on the beach and personal items of soldiers that have been unearthed over the past 70 years – much of it crusted with barnacles.
Heading down to the actual beach, it immediately hits you how Omaha and Utah were different. Omaha has a deep beach leading up to large cliffs, while Utah was more of sand dunes. I took some shots of a few monuments along the beach, including the huge Liberation Monument and “The Braves”, a symbolic sculpture coming out of the sand. I headed up the coast a bit and came across a huge National Guard Memorial. I made sure to take some pictures for my father, who was in the Guard when I was a baby historian.
As you drive along Omaha Beach, you see the water and sand on one side, the cliffs on the other, and small and large beach homes in between. At first, it seems almost ignorant to have people frolic on the sand with their dogs and dig sand castles in this vacation spot, but after further thought, it actually drives home the fact that the D-Day landings and the resulting Battle for Normandy happened smack dab in the middle of the lives of their French living under German occupation. When the Allies chose the beaches, they knew that the people of Normandy would be affected – in many ways.
After reading about what happened at Omaha, and having that first scene from Saving Private Ryan or the landings from "The Longest Day" etched in my brain, I guess I was expecting more .. but I shouldn't have. There is no way to re-enact such a day for the public, a day when, according to Ambrose, "the sacrifice of good men that morning was just appalling". How do you present that on the actual location, when kids are running barefoot along the beautiful channel? To really understand Omaha, you have to read the words of the men who were there, hear the tales of inspiring leaders like Norman Cota, a Brigadier General who jumped a seawall and shouted out words of encouragement and directions to his men, all under heavy fire. The movies can give you an idea of what happened on this stretch of land, and the museums can help put images and artifacts together to tell a story, but to really understand Omaha or Utah, even if you are there, you have to listen to those that came ashore on June 6, 1944.