November 8, 2018
On the Normandy Coast, By Chancy Kapp
“My dad was wounded in a crater just like this one.”
“My great-uncle crash-landed behind the lines in a glider and never recovered from his injuries.”
“I want to put a flower on the grave of my friend Bill’s brother.”
“How did anyone get off the beach alive?”
These were among many private thoughts spoken aloud as our group walked the beaches and villages of Normandy. Our earlier visits to the battlefields of World War I were instructive and meaningful, but on this day, emotions seemed closer to the surface. Almost all of us knew a family member or close friend who had fought in Normandy or lost someone here. North Carolina connections were everywhere.
Under brilliant skies very different from the fog and rain of D-Day, we started on Utah Beach, an American landing site where almost everything about the landing went according to plan. A striking memorial featured a Higgins boat, the wooden landing craft invented in New Orleans that carried thousands of young men through the surf. (A few years ago, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort restored one of the dozen remaining Higgins boats for the 1st Division Museum in Chicago).
Just back from the beach, the beautiful village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise revealed the church steeple familiar to us from the movie The Longest Day. Yes, an Army paratrooper did snag there, play dead for two hours and survive. The extensive museum complex showcases the heroism of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, both of which trained for the landing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, still home to the 82nd.
The war seemed closest, however, at Pointe Du Hoc, a Nazi stronghold perched on 100 foot cliffs with clear views—and shots-- of Utah and Omaha beaches. This is where Army Rangers found a way up the cliffs and through the lines. We walked carefully through enormous craters into the German command center squatting in the sand and peer through the through the slit, imagining a young German soldier on watch, spotting one, then ten, then 5000 ships emerging through the fog.
More than 9000 of the Americans who died in Normandy are buried at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a tranquil spot that overlooks Omaha Beach. Our guide presented us with roses to place as we chose – at the striking memorial of an American youth emerging from the sea toward Heaven; in the chapel; or among the graves. My husband Keith and I chose the first two North Carolina names we found – a random search took less than a minute. Barbara and Jim Goodmon found a Jewish marker, honoring a current friend devastated by the recent attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue. We learned here and at Meuse-Argonne that the pristine rows of crosses and stars represent fewer than half of the Americans who died here. About 60 percent of families chose to bring their loved ones back to the United States.
We finished our day at Omaha Beach where, in contrast to Utah, almost nothing about the landing went right. Our visit coincided with “half-tide,” as did the landing, so we could see the vast sweep of the beach and imagine Nazi shells and obstacles.
Our guide – Tar Heel fan Barbara Sceatta again -- surprised us with a special ceremony at the monument on the beach. She read a heartfelt statement of thanks for our presence and the willingness of our fathers, grandfathers, uncles and friends to defend Europe from tyranny.
And then –a young French bugler led us in “The Star Spangled Banner” and closed with “Taps.” We needed no more words – only tears.