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The International Writers Magazine: Normandy

A Sea of White
• Katherine Casillo
9,387 white marble gravestones stand erect on a perfectly manicured lawn in Normandy, France. Stretching across 172 acres of land overlooking Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery serves as a powerful reminder of the thousands of young American soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the Allied troops.

Cemetery Normandy

Nearly seventy years after the D-Day landings, at the site of such unprecedented carnage, now stands this serene cemetery and memorial. Americans easily forget the magnitude of World War II, now so far removed from the war, but walking through the rows headstones, no American can deny the sense of pride in their country for the heroism of the thousands of fallen soldiers.

D-Day Omaha Before journeying to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, my grandparents made certain that I knew the history of this famous sight. Sitting in our hotel room the night before our excursion, we watched The Longest Day, which portrayed the story of the Normandy landings. The film depicts the vast amount of bloodshed that took place on Omaha beach – appropriately nicknamed Bloody Omaha – showing soldiers shot down in the ocean before even making landfall.

This film served as a great history lesson, especially to someone like me, who knew little about D-Day prior to arriving in Normandy. See also Band of Brothers

Immediately upon arriving at the site, the elegant beauty of the cemetery and memorial struck me. Positioned high on a bluff, the graveyard overlooks Omaha Beach where Allied troops landed on D-Day and where many American soldiers lost their lives. The serenity of watching the waves crash onto the sandy beach made it hard to envision the bloody scene that took place here over sixty years ago.

Code-named “Operation Neptune”, D-Day took place on June 6, 1944 when the Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. The Allies that landed in Normandy consisted of soldiers from the United States, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  These soldiers caught the Germans somewhat by surprise, for they did not expect General Dwight Eisenhower to go forward with the invasion quite yet due to poor weather conditions. Unfortunately, the landing on Omaha Beach did not go as planned, resulting in a great number of casualties, but over the course of the next few days the Allies successfully secured the area.

Stopping first at the grand memorial, I began to take in the whole monument. A semicircular colonnade containing the names of 1,557 missing American who lost their lives stands as the backdrop of the memorial. At the center of this half circle rests a tall bronze statue of a man with arms outstretched towards the sky symbolizes the “Spirit of American Youth.” In front of these enormous structures lies a glistening pool, which reflects the colonnade and the statue. Surrounding the reflecting pool and the gravestones just beyond, are trees trimmed like lampshades, a truly magical sight.

Despite the many people touring the historic site, all was quiet as we meandered through the grounds.  The peaceful nature of the cemetery is confounding because one typically does not think of serenity when standing in a place that saw such destruction and now houses the remains of thousands of fallen soldiers. The mere sight of the sea of white marble crosses and Stars of David overwhelmed me. As we stepped off the red shining path and onto the perfectly maintained grass, we could clearly read the headstones. Engraved with the names, ranks, platoons, home states, and dates of death of fallen American soldiers, passing through the sea of gravestones seems endless. Wandering deeper into the cemetery, we came across the tombstone that marked the burial place of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Unlike the other gravestones we saw, his had gold writing and the words “Medal of Honor” written on it.  This was the first cross of this kind that we saw, but it was not the last, for we discovered two other crosses with gold writing honoring those who received Medals of Honor.

The sun shone high in the sky – not a cloud seen for miles – contributing to the cemetery’s impeccable beauty. Further along into the tour, our guide told us, “All of the headstones face westward, towards America, for the soldiers who did not return home. At this comment, my grandmother began to cry, and I felt a shiver run through me for all of the brave soldiers who died fighting for freedom. Not only did this experience bring me great sadness for the soldiers who lost their lives, but also it gave me an immense sense of pride in my country that I had not felt before.

As an American visiting France, seeing the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was the most worthwhile experience I had. We take so much for granted living decades after the last World War, but experiencing the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial put everything into perspective.
© Katherine Casillo May 2013

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