Continued from Part I.
It is difficult to describe the visual impact of the many Allied and American cemeteries in the North of France. Even today’s reverent pictorials on the Internet cannot capture the feeling evoked by passing hundreds, then thousands, of white crosses, field after field, kilometre after kilometre, each cross marking the final resting place of a soldier foreign to this soil. Those who live here see these reminders every day.
Even the power of such passing visions was slow to settle into us. But the historic beachheads, the rusting hulks of landing craft, the preserved barriers, and impossible battle sites were suddenly all around us. The soldier in each of us was humbled and awed.
The French survivors of the war were still numerous in 1971, and many were open and gracious about their experience. They were mostly in their 50s and 60s by then. We were in our 20s, with only a schoolboy’s knowledge of the War or the D-Day Invasion.
An apple farmer, determined that we should taste his special cider, showed us the barn he said had been built by American GIs after the war, replacing the family barn destroyed in the conflict. He spoke eloquently of the fears his people had known under Nazi domination. After being occupied so long, they had begun to fear that they and their children would always live under German rule. With tears in his eyes, he spoke of his gratitude to the Americans who had not only spent thousands of lives to free his homeland, but then also came back to rebuild what seemed hopelessly ruined.
We were speechless then and speechless again the next morning when we stood watching French families meticulously caring for the gravesites of American soldiers they had never known.
Normandy’s unique landscape placed us multiple times in places where, because of the rolling hills and the sea, viewpoints would abound from which all we could see, in any direction, were white crosses — acres of them, incredible expanses of them.
The soldiers in us were altered by this display of the cost of war. The sons in us were never prouder to be American.