A birthday trip, re-enactors and WWII veterans make for remarkable trip to Normandy
OMAHA BEACH, Normandy -- So this ruddy-faced Englishman outfitted in the olive-drab jump uniform of a World War II U.S. 101st Airborne officer is telling me how he smuggled his Thompson submachine gun onto the Chunnel train.
The conductor saw the weapon, and the fact that my English friend had boarded fully clad in field-dress, helmet, jump boots and Screaming Eagle patch on his shoulder, as if he were ready for combat.
With a “wink-wink,” the ticket-taker opted to pretend the gun wasn't there.
“He told me to just bury it at the bottom of my kit while he looked the other way,” he said.
The downside? He had to leave his six-inch paratrooper knife at home.
The biggest untold story behind the annual D-Day remembrances is of the hundreds of World War II re-enactors who descend on the northwestern coast of France during the first week of June each year.
Almost all of these men are European, primarily from the U.K., France and The Netherlands. Some don't speak a word of English. Yet, just like their Confederate re-enactor counterparts in the United States, they are accurate in every detail in presenting their American helmets, uniforms, decorations, weapons and even their surplus Willys Jeeps that dominate the highways.
I discovered all of this during the greatest sunrise of my life.
On June 7, I turned 50. But months before, my wife came up with the idea of spending my 5-0 on the D-Day beaches. She knew that I'd been fascinated with The Longest Day since I was a teenager.
To me, the Normandy invasion stands as the greatest single-day accomplishment of the 20th century. There was a great evil loose in Europe and the Allies were the last-line decider of what the world would look like.
But June 6, 1944, was more than a day of right versus wrong. Historian Stephen Ambrose put it better than most when he described the sheer heroics and logistics of punching a hole into Nazi-occupied France.
“It was as if the cities of Green Bay, Racine, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, were picked up and moved — every man, woman and child, every automobile and truck — to the east side of Lake Michigan in one night,” he said. And that is without anyone in the State of Michigan suspecting they were coming.
After landing in Paris on Air France from Atlanta, our trip to the coast started with a train ride to Rouen to pick up our four-door Fiat rental. Rouen is some 70 miles from Paris and is worth an overnight stop. It's where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and the cathedral there is a stand-in for Notre Dame but without the two-hour lines.
Driving the French roads soon became second-nature, though the highway route numbers weren't as well marked as we'd hoped.
Along the coast road heading into Normandy we quickly discover a series of coastal beach communities that mirror Myrtle Beach for kitsch. In our favor is that in early June these roads and resort towns are mostly abandoned, as the famous French summer vacation exodus was still a few weeks away.
In an hour we hit our first D-Day landmark: Pegasus Bridge. This span over the Orne River was the site of the first significant action of the invasion, as British glider troops landed in the dark to secure the eastern sector of the landings. It is one of dozens of well-established monuments and museums along the length of the Normandy coast for most every aspect of the invasion, from the paratroopers who landed by the thousands to the destroyers and landing craft that fed the invasion from offshore.
Where to stay
We had decided to try the tiny dot village of Tracy-sur-Mer, near the beach town of Arromanches, within the British zone. It is one of dozens of stay opportunities along the 50-mile sector that made up the landings.
Where to stay
Before checking in at La Ferme de la Petite Noe, a working equestrian training farm that doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, we stop on a high cliff and take pictures of the “Mulberries” a mile offshore, the massive concrete barriers that were towed over from England shortly after the invasion to create a semi-circle artificial harbor for Allied supplies.
By extraordinary stroke of luck and unknown to us, Arromanches is also the unofficial headquarters for many of the English veterans who landed in Normandy who come back every year.
While we met no American Normandy vets during our three days there, on our first night we found more than a dozen veteran English pilots, soldiers and sailors drinking heavily at the Hotel D'Arromanches and the accompanying bar, Le Pappagall.
They seem to especially like American visitors, chattering freely about what they remember from June 6.
Late on the 5th, The drinks begin to flow and Englishman Len Cox takes us under his wing, and gives us a photograph of him in his Army uniform at age 18 around the time he landed up the coast. Meanwhile, I refuse to take a 10 Euro note from another beret-wearing upper octogenarian whose chest is full of medals, putting his Jameson's Irish whiskey on my tab.
The week of the D-Day anniversary is like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Gettysburg all rolled into one for the re-enactors decked out in all form of American G.I. uniform.
They flood into towns setting up camps almost wherever they please, be it a field or in some cases, taking over central squares. Soon olive drab tents go up, clothes are hung from drying lines and barbecue smoke fills the air.
Both the British islanders and the Continental Europeans bring their World War II surplus Jeeps and vehicles in for the celebration.
We see 21/2-ton trucks, armored cars, vintage motorcycles and jeeps in all sorts of markings. All are owned by private individuals. There's even magazines available (in French and English) advertising how to buy the most accurate gear.
American G.I's remain the preferred soldier to re-create for two reasons: the enormous sacrifice the U.S. troops made that is still acknowledged today, and the fact that the U.S. landing beaches were the site of the most significant fighting.
But there are no German-uniformed re-enactors anywhere. “The Germans still aren't too well-liked around here,” one Welsh re-enactor tells me in the understatement of the day.
The only German anything I see is a truck with an iron cross painted on it driven by faux G.I.s indicating it's been “captured.”
Over drinks one night, we learn than some of the re-enactors are known to take their roles extremely seriously. Case in point: I hear a story of 15 Dutchmen dressed as members of the 101st Airborne. True to their realism, they spend D-Day week camping in the hedgerows and walking from battle-site to battle-site going through the stages of what happened there 69 years ago.
At night, they were known to leap from the woods and abruptly stop vehicles driven by other re-enactors on the darkened two-lane roads checking for “passes” and making sure other re-enactors were authentic enough, even holding some at the point of a carbine.
Afterward, they'd slip off into the darkness.
Fireworks shows are common during the week, too, with the biggest over the town of Arromanches on June 6.
We got a ride on a Jeep driven by one of the re-enactors staying at the horse farm. He was from Switzerland, doesn't speak a word of English but is dressed as a U.S. Sherman tank driver.
The good news for trying to accommodate as many sites into your visitation schedule as possible is that because France is so far north on the globe that the June sun rarely sets before 10 p.m., allowing for long traveling days.
The American Cemetery. More than 9,300 white marble crosses and Stars of David fill the rows of a flat area overlooking Omaha Beach. Worth a quiet reflective walk to absorb the names, states and dates of the U.S. service losses.
The beaches themselves. We spent much of our time visiting stretches of Omaha and Utah beaches in the American sector. Like at Gettysburg, monuments to the heroics of the day dot each of them. The walking, parking and roads in are easy and accessible.
Pointe Du Hoc. The Ranger Monument and leftover pillboxes tell the story of the Army Rangers who had to climb the steep cliffs here under constant fire. Deep bomb craters remain all over hundreds of yards that were part of the German strong-point overlooking the American landings. It was the most crowded of our stops.
The city of Bayeux. After my camera battery went dead and I'd forgotten the charger, we found a camera store in Bayeux that agreed to re-charge mine for $6.50. We visited the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum, which was worth seeing for its collection of uniforms, tanks and re-creations of the battle line. Across the street is the British military cemetery. We also had our best meal in Bayeux: three courses, including Normandy salad, simple roast chicken smothered in a delicious gravy followed by chocolate mousse cake at Restaurant Le Petit Normand. Cost: $25.
While there were other sites to see that remain too numerous to list, there's also the chance of surprises for anyone who visits around D-Day. By sheer luck as we stepped out of our rental car at the official Omaha Beach invasion memorial, we spotted two British Spitfires and one American P-51 Mustang flying together overhead.
These are each million-dollar-plus aircraft and over the next three days, we would catch glimpses of them entertainingly cruising high above.
Sunrise, June 6, Omaha Beach
We awoke at 5:30 a.m. and just started driving west along the coast, not sure where we were going to end up. Our goal was to be on the beaches to catch the sunrise and to finish a special mission we dreamed up months before.
Sunrise, June 6, Omaha Beach
Less than 10 kilometers from our inn, we found an excellent paved road that meanders through the woods down to the beach.
We end up where elements of the Army's “Big Red One” First Infantry Division came ashore. One of the beach markers explained that no more than about 40 Germans held off masses of Americans spilling onto shore who were stalled by the Germans' topographical height advantage.
What's most stunning about the Normandy beaches is that at low tide, the expanse in some areas goes out for hundreds of yards. What's most disturbing, is the hills seem to go straight up in places, further indicating how brutal the conquest was.
Coupled with the steep climb is the noticeably dense vegetation that controls the landscape before it breaks off into endless fields of yellow mustard flowers that we see ranging across the French countryside.
Back on the wet beach, our stay in Normandy on D-Day morning came to an end. The water temperatures was in the mid-50s, while the air temperature was headed up to the 70s for the day.
Out of the blue, an older man wearing a baseball cap from The Citadel stops to talk, explaining he'd graduated from there in the 1960s but had since moved to northern Alabama. We chat briefly.
Watching the sun come up, and out of respect to the day, we plant 50 tiny American flags in the sand and step away, watching as the tides of the English Channel creep back in.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.