As far back as I can recall I have had a fascination with military history and WWII especially, so going to Normandy was like a fantasy trip for me.
The unexpected aspect about France and the battlefields was the incredible beauty of the land and towns. Somehow the absolutely stunning countryside seemed to hide its own brutal history. Normandy is an area of ancient towns and small farms set in a gentle, rolling countryside so green and full of trees, orchards and the famous hedgerows that to have a battle there seemed almost sacrilegious.
We had been warned that the French were obnoxious towards Americans, but we found the exact opposite to be the case. In fact, the nicest people we dealt with were the French around Normandy. We had a major transportation snafu and a local rental car manager in Cherbourg took us under her wing when she realized we were Americans trying to visit the battlefields. She saved us from what was shaping up to be a huge disappointment.
Turns out her grandmother was a child during D-Day and she told us her story of being given chocolate from a friendly U.S. G.I. — the delicious taste of which she experienced for the first time. She was given an orange, something new as well, and bit into it like an apple, which brought a laugh from the American soldier, who then showed her how to peel and eat it.
Whoever that G.I. was, his efforts more than 62 years ago inspired a French woman to go out of her way to help some stranded Americans achieve their long-held desire to visit the beaches of Normandy. We sensed a sincere appreciation in the locals for what the “liberators” had done so many years ago.
On the hallowed ground of the invasion beaches, many of the German gun fortifications, trenches and other remnants are still present, but even with the war implements there it was difficult to contemplate that we were standing where it all took place. Today the beaches are so tranquil, with a gentle rolling surf and long strips of perfect sand, that visualizing what had happened there was again hard to imagine — until you go above Omaha beach to the very well-maintained American Military Cemetery, parts of which actually overlooks the beach on which many of them died. It was a very somber experience to walk among almost 10,000 graves with seemingly unending rows of crosses, reading the names and dates of so many young men killed in the prime of their lives.
Somewhat unexpected: Nearby is the German war cemetery, visited just as diligently by grieving relatives who honor the memory of their sons as well.
For me, war has mostly been thought of in terms of generals and numbers and good versus evil, but rarely in terms of individual stories (with the exception of the more dramatic heroic efforts). The real irony was contemplating the disruption and chaos of war in general. Literally millions of young men on both sides who should be home loving their wives and children, finishing their schooling or learning a trade, are swept up by world-wide events they cannot prevent and have nothing to do with yet find themselves killing others also not entirely there of their own free will.
I’ve noticed the veterans themselves do not talk about their experiences much, nor do they seem to have any deep-seated hatred for their former enemies. It’s generally starry-eyed people like myself who have never experienced anything even remotely familiar to what they went through who romanticize war into something it’s not.
The personal side of the war was captured well in a small military museum next to the church in St. Mere Eglise, where the diaries and uniforms and personal memorabilia are displayed, mostly American but also some British and German. The surrounding grounds have numerous tanks and planes and artillery pieces. I’m not sure why, but a strong wave of emotion swept over me as I walked around there. I felt a strange mixture of deep pride in being an American, a bit of envy for not having had the opportunity to participate in such a massive and noble cause, gratitude for what my countrymen had so honorably accomplished and sorrow for what had happened to so many.
As you drive up to St. Mere Eglise, the church with its Norman style towers dominates the view, and from a distance you see what looks like a large white sheet stuck on the steeple. As we got closer we realized it was a parachute blowing in the wind. The story of the young American paratrooper who had the bad luck of getting his parachute caught on the steeple and surviving the battle by hanging there as if dead is vividly retold. Admittedly it’s a bit of a tourist trap but seeing it there shrinks the huge battle down to the reality of what it really was: thousands of small individual efforts carried out by young terrified soldiers who, honor-bound, did their duty.
Today the individuals still living from the WWII generation are rapidly passing on. Collectively what they accomplished, the righteousness of their cause and the diligence and fortitude to pursue it to complete victory are milestones never to be forgotten in American and world history. They go to their graves knowing this: As individuals and as a generation they have earned a respect and an honor that will never die. They don’t see themselves as heroes, but if Duty-Honor-Country means anything, you will understand when I say:
They are all heroes to me.
Ira Hansen is a lifelong resident of Sparks, owner of Ira Hansen and Sons Plumbing and his radio talk show can be heard Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. on 99.1 FM.