THE LONGEST DAY:
A VISIT TO NORMANDY ON D-DAY
Many men came here as soldiers, Many men will pass this way
Many men will count the hours, As they live the longest day
Many men are tired and weary, Many men are here to stay
Many men won't see the sunset, When it ends the longest day
June 6, 2020
By MARSHALL SWANSON
Normandy, France - The Longest Day meant the final day for some young men barely reaching adulthood on June 6, 1944. As I boarded my flight to England out of Orlando, I reflected on the arduous journey many brave Americans my age once took on their voyage across the sea. But sea-sickness and foreign lands were the least of their worries. Once I arrived in London, the train brought me to Portsmouth where a ferry awaited. The scene on the ship seemed lighthearted and jovial, with patriotic excitement filling the air. Despite the great spirit onboard, one couldn't help but imagine a very different set of feelings the young men of the Normandy invasion experienced. Without any guarantee of return, they crossed the waters of the channel into the unknown.
Following my arrival, I navigated to the cemetery for the ceremony. President Trump and President Macron both delivered speeches to go down in history books. But then I thought back to the words of Abraham Lincoln, who at another famous battlefield stated, "we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." Truly, the blood, tears and sweat of the men buried in the Normandy American Cemetery exhort each of us to live up to the legacy of freedom they won for our nation.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, I spent some time looking around the cemetery. Though this trip served as my third visit, the beautiful chimes never lose their effect. Nor do the colossal monuments of cemetery which act as a testament of the sacrifices made in the defense of our land. A brief stroll just outside the cemetery will bring you to the high-ground where Nazi forces entrenched themselves. Though many aspects of Hollywood's portrayals of Normandy meet the reality of the battle, the topographical features of the site manifest to an even greater magnification in person. Looking up from the beaches, the cliffs and hills of Normandy appeared simply insurmountable and a quick descent into Nazi bunkers and fortifications revealed the level of difficulty any assailant faced when attempting to gain control.
Though the crowds overwhelmed the site, my plans deliberately fit in several extra days to wander around the sites of Normandy. The only practical way to see the battle sites in the region is by car. Bus tours work fine for anyone preferring well-planned regimented trips, but do not bode well for those with more flexible plans or budgets. Driving around Normandy during D-Day and days following, you'll see a vast fleet of World War II jeeps, tanks and all varieties of military equipment and paraphernalia. If you're lucky, you might get a ride!
One of the most memorable of these visits: Pointe du Hoc. In one of his most famous speeches, President Reagan coined the title "the boys of Pointe du Hoc" to describe the brave young men who climbed the steep cliffs of that very fortified area in Normandy. With a 225 strong force, the boys of Pointe du Hoc finished their climb with barely 100 men. For anyone who knows the reality behind the seemingly bucolic setting, the view brings tears to the eyes though not without pride to every American heart. While standing atop the cliff, I spotted a 99 year old veteran of the Normandy invasion from England. Upon meeting him, I thanked him for his service. He seemed so young at heart that I didn't realize his age until he revealed the secret when I said goodbye. Before I left, I told him my grandfather served as an Air Force pilot and navigator. With a humility that defined his generation he said, "tell your grandfather thank you, without the Americans to help us, God knows what might've happened!" The veteran's cheerful and youthful demeanor permeated through all those attending the events of that week, including a few in their late 90s who jumped out of planes.
When traveling on an extended visit to Normandy, make sure to take time and visit many of the smaller towns on the coast and taste the delicious cuisine they offer. Though summertime may present a golden opportunity to visit during warmer temperatures, Floridians might feel a bit chilly if unaccustomed to the cooler temperatures of northern France. While visiting Normandy, a fun detour from main battle sites and beaches lies just an hour or so away at the castle of Les Andelys. This is an especially excellent location to visit if your journey begins in Paris.
On my journey back home, the seas were rougher than most any I encountered in my life. Though I grumbled internally about the seasick journey I embarked upon, I reminded myself of the fact that just below me, the same veteran I met on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc slept soundly. Before boarding the ship I met him once again and enjoyed a long conversation with him as I waited for the boat. His tenacity and character reaffirmed the greatness of the Greatest Generation. On D-Day 2020 as I reflect on the journey I undertook last year, I hear the constant echo of that generation's call to mine. Will they heed it?
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