I had always wanted to visit the landing beaches of Normandy in France. My wish had finally come true: Omaha Beach stretched in front of me and I spontaneously knelt in the soft sand. It was low tide and the sun was shining on the calm shimmering waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing but tranquility and beauty! I closed my eyes and, suddenly, I heard each wave whispering as it reached the shore, “Remember, remember, remember!”
Very early on June 6, 1944, the Atlantic Ocean came alive with a huge armada. The sky was heavy with grey clouds, the ocean was rough and angry. Steel, steel everywhere! Steel in the sky, in the water, steel whistling through the cold dawning day, ripping bodies apart, scarlet blood mingling with white sea foam…Men were screaming in pain, as death took its grim toll.
And yet, propelled by an incredible sense of duty and amazing courage, soldiers kept coming, anguish and terror beating in their young hearts. That very day their heroic sacrifices changed the course of history, opening the door to renewed freedom.
Freedom was what Europe needed so desperately! In May 1940 Western Europe had succumbed to Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. For years now Europe had suffered under the oppressive occupation of Nazi aggressors. The Germans had had 4 full years to shore up massive defensive lines along the Atlantic to prevent the Allied Forces to land. The only way to breach this formidable Atlantic Wall was to take the Germans by surprise and land at the least expected area.
Operation Overlord, secretly and carefully planned for months by the Allies, was the largest and most effective amphibious and airborne operation in military history. D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the very first day of the Battle of Normandy, a turning point of WW II.
This daring military operation started just after midnight on June 6, 1944, when 7,900 men of the British airborne troop, as well as 15,500 American paratroopers, were dropped inland, behind enemy lines. Moreover, the Royal Air Force released their bombs to crush the German artillery batteries along the Atlantic Wall.
At dawn the Germans were stunned to see the Atlantic covered by 5,772 ships of all sizes. Among those were 4,308 landing barges that had been ingeniously designed for this specific purpose. In the early morning the landing assault of the Allied Forces started. The anguished men were exhausted by the rough crossing from England. They suffered from seasickness, drenched by icy waves that broke over them, their feet covered with vomit and seawater.
Some of these young men never reached the shore: they were shot or drowned before reaching land! On Utah Beach, the Germans were quickly overtaken. On the other hand, on Omaha Beach, it was a carnage for our troops: the deadly battle went on until mid-afternoon to take control of the coast line. Simultaneous assaults by the Anglo-Canadian troops gained control on the beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword. It is easy to imaging the soldiers’ yearning, “Let it be over, Lord!”
At sunset Operation Overlord had succeeded! The Atlantic Wall had been breached and the Allied Forces poured in onto French soil. But the price of this victory was counted in human casualties: in one single day, 6,600 American men and 4,200 British and Canadian men. The losses on the German side were between 6,000 and 9,000 men.
In the following days after D-Day, new waves of tens of thousands of soldiers kept flooding the Normandy beaches. Operation Overlord had prepared the Allied Forces in great details for this colossal amphibious landing, but nothing had prepared the Allies for the hedgerow divided terrain of Normandy. The regional landscape was a great challenge for the mobility of a large number of troops, heavy artillery and tanks.
The Battle of Normandy raged for several more weeks. German General E. Rommel had warned Hitler that the enemy would succeed if the Atlantic Wall would fall. He was right! Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. The U.S.First Army brought the joy of liberation to my native Belgian town of Liège on September 8, 1944. I was exactly 10 months old on that glorious day!
Decades later I became a proud American citizen, happily married to an outstanding American gentleman, immensely grateful for the sacrifice of so many who bravely faced the enemy and death to preserve FREEDOM, and reestablish PEACE.
A remarkable monument on the sand of Omaha Beach struck me in its gripping symbolism, an abstract steel sculpture made of shiny interwoven sharp panels reaching up to the sky. This memorial sculpture reflects pain and death, but also strength, courage, honor, and victory!
I concluded my D-Day pilgrimage with a visit to the Omaha Beach Cemetery and Memorial that overlooks the pristine shoreline. No words can express the emotion upon witnessing row after row of snow-white crosses and stars of David, stretching as far as the eye can see… 9,387 American heroes are buried on the immaculate grounds, plus 307 “Unknown but to God”.
Embedded in the cemetery lawn, under a granite slab, is a time capsule, which has been sealed and contains news reports of the D-Day landings in Normandy. An engraved plaque reads, “In memory of General Dwight Eisenhower and the forces under his command.” It is to be opened June 6, 2044!
Will time help men find new ways to live in peace? So far we are not making great progress. Will time erase the memory of this epic D-Day? Hopefully not! Let us all remember that the price of freedom is extremely high, counted in blood and tears. Let us refrain from daily futile complaints and let us never forget all those who fought for peace, and the heroes who sleep facing the sea in Normandy.