Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Visiting Omaha

We started the day with a visit to Bayeux. The first problem is that parking spaces are at a premium. I used the parking lot shark technique – follow someone who appears to be heading for their car and snatch their spot as they drive off. We finally found something resembling a parking space and took off on foot to find the tapestry.

They are proud of their little piece of cloth and would have you spend several hours reading descriptive material and watching films before seeing the real deal. We skipped all that and went right to tapestry. The free audio guides are adequate to describe the scenes on the tapestry.

Lunch was at a little outside cafe. I think my wife has finally gotten used to the French and their dogs. They take their dogs everywhere and it is not unusual to see them in a restaurant. A large black lab lay at her feet for the whole meal and she didn’t blink.

After the tapestry, we headed for the coast and the invasion beaches. We went to Port-en-Bessen and along the way happened upon a museum filled with D Day artifacts salvaged from the sea. In the parking lot were two examples of Double Drive Sherman tanks. These were secret amphibious tanks with propeller drives described previously. They were supported by an inflatable canvas “hull” and were supposed to propel themselves ashore unaided. These had to be some of the tanks lost by the 741st Tank Battalion. All but two of their 16 tanks were swamped trying to swim to the beach. These had lost their canvass “hulls” but remnants of the inflatable support struts were still attached along with the inflating mechanism and tubing. Their gun barrels were locked in the high elevation they had to have to clear the canvas skirt that kept them afloat. Uncle Phillip was in the 743rd Tank Battalion. When the LST driver carrying his tanks realized what was happening to the 741st, he elected ignore his orders and take his tanks all the way to the beach, an action that probably had a major impact on the outcome of the day.

When you approach the beaches from land it is not obvious that there is a beach. The land slopes gently up to an almost vertical bluff, and from the coast road, you can’t see what’s on the other side. We took the coast road that paralleled the beach until we got to Colleville. There we took a road down to the beach. This was probably the same route that most of the troops used to get off the beach on D Day. It was one of the major routes up the bluffs which were impassable to vehicles except in a few draws. And the Germans had these pretty well defended.

We parked on Omaha Beach in the shadow of the monument to the 1st Division. My wife is surprised to see the beach being used for recreation. Families were picnicking, flying kites and enjoying the day. I think she found it a little surreal. You tend to forget that this place, with all its history, is still a beach. But from this vantage point you get a better idea of what the soldiers faced. At low tide, they had to cross 300 yards of open beach. When they reached the high tide line, the beach ended in a strip of cobble stones and a shallow ledge about 2 feet high. Beyond that is another 100 yards of open ground leading to a bluff over 100 feet high. And the whole thing is strung with barbed wire, mines and covered with intersecting machine gun fire.

From here we headed back up the bluff for the American Cemetery at St. Laurent-sur-Mere. It’s late August and the lines of traffic are long. It seems for every car leaving, there are five wanting to get in. We arrive just after a heavy rain. I am astonished at the number of Europeans who are making the pilgrimage to the cemetery. Certainly they must have better things to do than to sit in traffic waiting to visit a cemetery with 10,000 graves, but then maybe we Americans underestimate the appreciation Europe still has for their liberation from the Nazis. I saw a similar appreciation in the South Korea. I hope the Iraqis will feel the same in 50 years.

The American Cemetery is another item on my list of things to see before you die.

From the cemetery we drove to Vierville-sur-Mer. This is far end of Omaha Beach. This is the beach area where my uncle came ashore. It was one of the main exits from the beach but the Germans had built a large concrete wall blocking the road. There were also gun emplacements where 88 mm guns could shoot the length of Omaha Beach. This is where the boys of Bedford, Virginia landed - just behind the tanks of the 743rd. Today the old gun emplacement serves as a memorial to the National Guard. This is the view the German gunners had. Try to imagine crossing that beach at low tide under fire form this gun.

The next stop was Pont-du-Hoc where Rangers climbed the cliffs only to find that the guns they were supposed to attack had been moved further inland. They found the guns and destroyed them anyway and then dug in until help arrived. It was two days before some tanks of the 743rd were able to get over to relieve the Rangers. I like to think Uncle Philip’s tank was one of them.

Pont-du-Hoc has been left much as it was in June 1944, bomb craters and all.

Pont-du-Hoc has seen several improvements since I was here a year ago. A new parking lot, landscaping and observation platforms had been built for the 60th anniversary. And again I saw European tourists flocking here with children in tow. Like kids everywhere, they enjoy climbing in and around the old gun emplacements.

Since I didn’t want to overload my wife with D-Day stuff, we ended the war tour and went back to La Ducrie. Dinner that night was in a small bistro in the city of St. Lo. We were reminded of the friendliness of the French again when the family at the table next to ours offered translation help with the menu and then we spent some time giving their young boys some practice In English.

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