AN EMOTIONAL NORMANDY EXCURSION BRINGS HISTORY ALIVE
As a devout History Channel junkie and native of Philadelphia, where history gushes from almost every street and square, I tailor most of my travels to include visiting memorable sites. I’m fortunate that my son, a history major in college, shares this devotion, and our combined interests have taken us to some remarkable destinations, from the first convict prison in Australia to an almost 2,000-mile trek from Atlanta to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with stops at the lush green cornfields that now cover the once-bloody Antietam battlefield, the Harpers Ferry bluffs overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and the major Civil War sites in between.
We have a passion for World War II, fueled largely by a family connection: My uncle, James Cauley, was in the 101st Airborne division that parachuted into France the night before the D-Day invasion. A prolific letter writer, he recounted experiences of learning to jump at Fort Benning, Georgia; meeting Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower at an exhibition of American forces; and earning a medal for valor after his unit took a critical bridge in the French countryside. A few years ago, my son and I made the trip of a lifetime to Normandy, following in his footsteps during the annual week of D-Day commemorations.
Whittling down the list of highlights of the trip is difficult, but two experiences are most vivid. The first was the day spent in Sainte-Mère-Église, a small town where the forces of the 101st dropped out of the sky in the wee hours of June 6, 1944. The Germans shot down many of the parachutists before they hit the ground, and one young American dangled dangerously above the scene when his chute snagged on the church steeple. He survived, and to honor him and the other paratroopers who were part of the daring mission, the townspeople hung a dummy soldier from the same steeple and rebuilt the damaged church with stained-glass windows depicting paratroopers against the night sky. We stood a bit dumbstruck by the sight of a fake soldier swaying in the breeze above the cobbled square, but before we finished gawking, we were ambushed by two Sherman tanks rumbling down the street, followed by a troop truck full of re-enactors portraying American soldiers. For a surreal moment, the square became a movie set of 1940s clothes, equipment and liberating forces. We soon learned that during the week of D-Day remembrances, the entire Normandy countryside is awash with a cast of international re-enactors speaking French, English and Dutch, and all posing as the victors.
Without a doubt, the most emotional and moving memory of the visit came during the June 6 memorial service at the American cemetery in Collevillesur- Mer. Dignitaries from the U.S. and France spoke eloquently and offered prayers below the Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, a bronze figure that soars above the rows and rows of plain white crosses. The final resting place of more than 9,000 souls sits on a bluff above Omaha Beach, the site of bloody D-Day battles. Though many filmmakers have tried to capture that horrific event, their re-creations were less powerful than standing silently on the white sands and looking up at those countless crosses, all facing westward toward home.
IF YOU GO…
STORY: H.M. Cauley