France gave the United States a piece of land in perpetuity for the graves of American soldiers who died on D-Day or in related operations. My husband and I visited in late September.
It is not my habit to visit gravesites.
The American Cemetery occupies 172.5 acres on the high ground above Omaha Beach where the Americans landed in low tide on June 6, 1944, and encountered devastating German response from the hill.
Stormy weather was an issue on D-Day, but when we visited the sky was as blue as California’s sky and the weather as warm. We began at the Visitor Center that serves as an entrance to both the cemetery and Omaha Beach.
New and modern, the Visitor Center streams live video of the cemetery at abmc.ubicast.tv/lives/colleville-sur-mer/, and its museum tells the D-Day story from the point of view of individual soldiers.
This technique always gets to me, perhaps because of the details about home and family. I wasn’t familiar with any of the stories except one, about a soldier who was removed from his fighting unit after his brothers were killed. His story formed the basis of the 1998 Spielberg blockbuster Saving Private Ryan.
The cemetery, I learned later, contains the remains of about three dozen sets of brothers and one father and son.
While my husband, a student of history and a staunch museum-goer, lingered over the displays, I suddenly got an urge to move along. “I want to go outside,” I pleaded.
I wanted to feel the air, see the water and look at the monuments humans have been moved to build.
I wanted to get closer to imagining what it was like to be a soldier by standing on the ground where soldiers fought and died.
As we headed down to Omaha Beach, my husband and I were dismayed to encounter a group who were in a completely different frame of mind. They were young French teenagers, a school group, having fun. They stripped down, skipped stones, doused each other with sea water and ran back and forth in the spray.
I don’t question their behavior as much as the school’s choice to bring them. This field trip could have waited a couple of years.
We climbed up from the beach quickly to get distance from the school group and entered the American cemetery. Like military cemeteries I’ve seen in pictures, each grave is marked by a white cross or a white Jewish star. There are 9,387 crosses and 149 stars.
Each grave has the name of the soldier, his company, and the date he died. I was surprised that the date of birth was not given, but most would have been 1924 or 1925 because these men were young. Those who survived and lived long lives are now 87, 88 or older and dying off rapidly.
As we walked through the cemetery, I couldn’t stop thinking about how comfortable I was, with a warm sun, a blue sky and a perfect breeze. My only discomfort was sand in my shoes. The contrast to young Americans on D-Day, soaking wet, carrying heavy gear and dodging bullets was almost too painful to grasp.
As we walked toward the far end of the graveyard, I saw a group of about 30 soldiers wearing mismatched fatigues. They stood together, looking at graves. As we got closer, I noted that they wore shoulder flags from different countries, including flags from the U.S., France and Germany.
My curiosity grew. What was this group? Finally, I stopped one of the Americans and greeted him. I noticed immediately that his last name was Ryan. Bob noticed immediately that he had the insignia of special forces. He was perhaps 40 years old, fit and friendly.
“We’re a NATO unit based in Heidelberg,” he explained. “We’re touring today. Fourteen of the 28 member nations are represented in our group.”
I said something about the cemetery and we made small talk for a moment.
“We toured a German cemetery yesterday,” he offered, and the conversation suddenly felt weightier. “We’re all soldiers, so we have that in common.”
That last sentence is an exact quote because I pulled out a notecard and wrote it down as soon as we turned away from him. I wrote it down because it resonated with me and with my husband, who repeated it to himself, slowly, out loud.
“I wonder what he meant, exactly,” I said.
“Write about it,” said my husband.
There is something haunting about that line, coming from a man who is visiting a number of gravesites. “We’re all soldiers, so we have that in common.”
His words remind me that we look at past wars through different eyes, depending on our country of origin and our personal history. And we will look upon future wars differently, too, because of our varied loyalties and because times change.
Enemies become friends; friends become enemies. The sides change; war goes on. This cemetery is one of many from the past and one of many that will exist in the future. War starts again, one way or another.
If there’s anything sadder than a cemetery with 10,000 graves of young people, perhaps that’s it.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.