Snow-capped summits jutted from the ground, shimmering directly into my eyes. Almost blinding. As my eyes started to recover from the harsh glare, I caught sight of a scenery that can only be described as breathtaking. Peaks that made the massive trees below look like ants, albeit from the tiny plane window that I observed from. For a moment, I was transported back to my time fishing with Luka in Izola. That crazy old man would lose his mind if he saw this.
My flight landed in Paris during the evening. However, Paris was not my final destination. From the airport, I headed to the train station for Normandy.
On the train, I met a fellow American, Sophia. As we talked, I discovered that she is a big WWII buff. We had a lively conversation about the war and Normandy region itself. The train conductor loudly interrupted our conversation and told us passengers the next stop was Bayeux.
Quickly after the intercom trailed off, Sophia commented, ”Did you know, during WWII Bayeux became the capital of liberated France until Paris was liberated a few months later?”
Surprised by that fact, I asked her to tell me more. I tried to listen keenly, but the rural French scenery caught my eye as it raced by the train’s windows. We soon pulled into the station and I parted ways with Sophia. I headed towards my hotel, but along the way, the smell of fresh, sauteed vegetables filled my senses. I stopped at the quaint restaurant and ordered Ratatouille with a glass of calvados.
I rose early the next morning and ate a delicious breakfast. There is nothing better than French pastries and a latte in the morning. After my meal, I walked through the hotel’s front doors and looked for my tour guide. A gentleman approached me and introduced himself as Russell. He was a tall, lanky fellow with curly red hair poking out of his black beret. He’s dressed up like a 18th century historian, suit jacket and all. In his hands, he’s holding several maps and papers.
Russell said, “Bonjour and bienvenu. Today, we are heading to five different locations around Normandy. At any point feel free to ask me a question. We have a busy day, so let’s continue the conversation in the van as we drive to our first stop.”
We pulled into the packed lot and started for the entrance. The drive over wasn’t as picturesque as my flight, but nevertheless I enjoyed looking at the French countryside.
As we passed through the main gate, Russell told me, “In total, there are 5 beaches that the allies were assigned to land on. The Americans at Utah and Omaha, the British at Sword and Gold, and the Canadians at Juno. The cemetery is on the coast of Omaha.“
The bright green grass was trimmed to perfection. Rows and rows of tombstones lined the grass on either side of the paved walkway. A strange, eerie presence lingered in the air. You could smell the sea and hear the waves crash on shore. Seeing the anguish and range of emotions on people’s faces added to the surrealness of this moment. After a while, we went onto the neighboring Omaha beach.
Usually, when you think of the beach you picture summer, happiness, and relaxation. Not here. Omaha was broken into sectors, and Russell brought me to the westernmost, Charlie.
He said, “This area was backed by a seawall 10 feet high and overlooked by cliffs almost 100 feet high. On top of that, the sand was covered in mines and the coast with bunkers.” He pointed to a few bunkers and continued, “Imagine trying to overcome all of those obstacles. It was the bloodiest beach on D-Day. Around 2,400 Americans died here.“
We walked around the beach in silence. The last couple of hours was a lot to take in. It was around lunch time and Russell suggested we grab a bite to eat at a local town, Sainte-Mère-Église.
When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the monument of the paratrooper atop of the church. I asked Russell about it.
“That’s there to represent Private John Marvin Steele, the American paratrooper who landed on the pinnacle of the church tower. In the middle of the night, paratroopers swooped down to take control of the town. This was the first village to be liberated in France during Operation Overlord, or more commonly referred to as D-Day.”
As we headed towards the restaurant, we continued to discuss what happened at Sainte-Mère-Église. Apparently, it was so important to capture first because the town sat at a crossroads between the surrounding larger towns and cities in Normandy. Blocking this main road off would be a massive tactical advantage. We arrived at the small restaurant and placed our order. It was a warm day, so we elected to eat outside.
While we waited for our food, Russell said, “We will visit Utah next and on our way back to Bayeux, Pointe Du Hoc. This area is important because the cliffs overlooked both Utah and Omaha beaches. A lot of Nazi bunkers are still intact that we can walk through.”
When our food arrived, our conversation come to a halt. I looked around the small village filled with tourists. Ivy was crawling up the brick and cobble buildings. The town has a very old, European vibe to it. Very fitting considering where we are. The square was littered with people dressed oddly. I shrugged it off and continued to eat.
We finished our lunch and headed to the van. I was an arm’s length away from the van and suddenly a heavy roar bursted my ear drums. Three planes flew right overhead. As I look at Russell, an ear screeching alarm goes off. Red sirens flashed everywhere, and people were scrambling all over the place. The ground begins to shake, and I turned around to see tanks heading into the town square. Then more planes rumbled overhead, but this time people were jumping out of the sky. Their parachutes popped open and they started to fire. Simultaneously, I heard shooting towards the coast with loud booms going off one after another.
In this moment of insanity, I stood frozen in place, unable to grasp what was happening. A woman has been quickly approaching us and as she got closer, I realized it was Sophia. With all of the commotion around us, I could hardly hear what she was saying. The second time she screamed, and I made out a few words.
“How…do…like,” is what I managed to hear. I’m thinking to myself, what is their to like about this! I glanced over to Russell and he looked calm. In fact, I think he was enjoying himself.
Through the deafening noise, I screamed, “What the hell is going on?”
Russell started laughing, almost to the point of crying. He managed to get out, “It’s a reenactment, Alex! It happens once a year! Didn’t you notice all the people dressed in uniform around town?”
Russell and Sophia were both hysterically laughing and after a while, I couldn’t help but join. For a second, I thought it was 1941.
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