American soldiers are honored at cemetery in Normandy, France overlooking Omaha Beach, where thousands died in World War II's D-Day invasion
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Above a sand and shingle beach, where unspeakable carnage once played out, American soldiers have taken the high ground for all eternity.
Omaha Beach was the landing beach in France where Allied forces suffered the heaviest casualties on D-Day, as they began to liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation in World War II. And many soldiers interred at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial died on that beach or before they reached it.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the chaos, anguish, death, fear and valor on June 6, 1944, when even the terrain — steep bluffs overlooking the beach — opposed the landing.
In appearance, Omaha Beach is much like other parts of France’s Normandy coastline, rugged, sometimes storm-lashed, tranquil in fair weather. Its smells and sounds are of the sea, not war.
Most Read Life Stories
- Restaurant review: This tiny Seattle spot is making world-class pizza
- Remo Borracchini of beloved Seattle bakery Borracchini's dies at 92
- A hot West Seattle pizza spot comes to T-Mobile Park this Mariners season
- Check out 5 Western Washington campgrounds without the crowds this spring
- What it means to be a Seattle trans drag performer at a time of anti-drag rhetoric
A visit to the Normandy American Cemetery, however, brings into focus the scope of the D-Day invasion and the sacrifice.
Row upon row of marble crosses and Stars of David are the defining features of the cemetery. They mark the graves of 9,387 service members. Most were killed during the Normandy campaign that began on D-Day.
In the cemetery’s Garden of the Missing, the names of 1,557 service members whose remains were not recovered are engraved on stone tablets.
Visitors sometimes spend hours walking amid the headstones. They linger inside a colonnaded memorial where maps engraved in stone, and accompanying text, detail the progress of Allied forces from the D-Day beaches to the end of the war. They pause near the reflecting pool.
The staff at the visitor’s center provides information on the cemetery and local history. Next of kin get special treatment, including help finding where a family member is interred and an escort to the grave site.
But, long before leaving home, anyone planning to visit the grave of a relative should use the services offered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is responsible for 24 military cemeteries on foreign soil. Commission staff will provide information about travel routes and accommodations. Immediate family can obtain letters authorizing fee-free passports.
The commission’s online databases can be searched by name for an exact grave site. Staff also can generate a list of service members buried at a specific cemetery who entered military service from the same state. What brings family members to the Normandy cemetery is apparent: They come to honor loved ones. And, perhaps, seeing them at rest in such a tranquil setting is a comfort.
More than a million visitors come to the Normandy cemetery each year, with next of kin being only a small percentage. Walking through the carefully tended grounds, you’ll hear many languages. French citizens turn out in the hundreds of thousands each year to pay their respects.
For many American tourists, visiting the Normandy cemetery is something akin to a pilgrimage.
“Just because you do not have a family member there does not mean you don’t have a connection,” said Jon Bennett, who teaches at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Wisconsin. “We’re here today because of all these soldiers who put their lives on the line for us to live in a democracy.”