While in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany, I was informed that I would be going to Normandy and Paris, France for a few days around the June 6th, 1990 time frame to commemorate D – Day and the Victory in Europe and later, the victory in World War II. My school teachers must have gone over the whole”D-Day thing” at lightening speed because I really didn’t know much about it. Before we left Germany, we were instructed to watch the movie “The Longest Day” which at the time was the only movie about the invasion that we were aware of. Later, “Saving Private Ryan” would come out and really give the audience a more realistic representation of the events on June 6, 1944. To this day, “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO series, “Band of Brothers” which covers D-Day are both in my top 5 movie list.
A few days before D-Day, 1990 our group of soldiers from the 1st Battalion 32nd Field Artillery in Hanau, Germany boarded CH-47 Chinook choppers headed to our first stop, Normandy, France. Later, we would call these choppers “Vomit Comets” as many of us didn’t ride too well. I managed to keep my cookies down – barely. Finally, we landed right on the cliffs of Normandy near what was once called code name – Omaha Beach by the allies when planning the operation known as OVERLORD. Omaha saw the biggest losses in Normandy and it was the Army’s 1st Infantry and 29th Infantry Divisions who had responsibility of that sector. The 29th was made up of Virginia National Guardsmen and I would later wear the same patch in combat operations during Iraqi Freedom as I served with the 29th Infantry Division proudly.
I walked the beach and imagined the hell that occurred that day. I remember the beach was very rocky, not like the sandy beaches of North Carolina that I’m used to. I even picked up a small red stone that to me, symbolized the blood that was spilled. Somehow, I lost it in the next few years and have always regretted it. The locals in Normandy loved us and were very hospitable. They were country people who were direct descendants and some may have been witnesses to the events on that day. They tried to fatten us up with delicious bread and other French pastries and we didn’t argue with them. They drank their coffee out of bowls like my granddaddy did. He was the only person I’d ever seen doing that and now I had made it to France and everyone was doing it.
The next day, we visited the American cemetery and museum there. The cemetery has 9,387 Americans buried in it and to see that many American headstones in a foreign land really brings into focus the sacrifice that was made there 70 years ago. The movie “Saving Private Ryan” starts and ends in that very cemetery so watch for it if you see the movie again.
Finally, we boarded the vomit comets again, with a destination of Paris. I had visited Paris the year before as a tourist while on leave from the Army, but now we would ride choppers around the Eiffel Tower and embark on another adventure. We landed after the short flight and participated at a joint military ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe with the French Prime Minister and French troops.
After the ceremony, we did a little sight-seeing and I spent my last night in Paris and returned to Germany the next day. Now, with the memory of that cemetery in Normandy where nearly 10,000 Americans forever rest, I am now educated about the tremendous sacrifice that the Allied Forces made for the French and for the entire world.