In 1956 France ceded 171 acres to the United States in appreciation for the sacrifice made by American soldiers June 6, 1944 and in the days that followed. Thus, we were on American soil at the cemetery in Normandy overlooking Omaha Beach where over 25,000 Americans purchased that land through the sacrifice of their lives.
Further up the way were the cliffs over Utah Beach also assaulted by Americans. To our right were Gold, Juno and Sword attacked by our Allies.
Omaha Beach is about six miles long. We were there on an overcast cool day. The weather on the invasion day was worse.
We were there at high tide, a tide which can reach ten meters. So on our visit it was less than a quarter mile from the beach to the foot of the hills from which the Germans were firing. To help avoid
German mines and obstacles, the invasion was at low tide, and we were told the soldiers and navy sappers clearing the way had to wade in about a half mile. Over three thousand died in the first hour.
More or less at the center of the beach is an older 1st Division memorial where the 1st Division led the assault. There is also a newer memorial, “Les Braves,” to all those young men who fought their way ashore.
After we made our way up the hill and toward the cemetery, we passed many small farms divided by hedgerows. Once the beaches were taken, those same hedgerows made moving inland extremely difficult because they provided cover for the enemy.
As noted, more than 25,000 Americans died in Normandy. Most bodies were repatriated to the United States at the wishes of their families, but 9387 are buried in the cemetery at Normandy. Of these, 307 are “known but to God.” Many drowned leaving their landing craft and were swept to sea. A wall commemorates 1559 missing men.
There is one man buried there who did not die in Normandy and actually died in World War I. It is Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt. He is buried next to his older brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Theodore Junior was a brigadier general who not only led his troops ashore at Utah Beach but under heavy fire rallied them and got them off the beach. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He died in France from a heart attack on July 15, just a little more than a month after his heroic action. One is tempted to wonder if children of privilege would do the same today.
Not too far from the Roosevelts are the graves of two Niland brothers killed at Normandy on June 6 and 7. A third brother died in battle in the Pacific. Special efforts were made to save the family the loss of yet a fourth son. And it was from this true story of exceptional sacrifice that the fictional story “Saving Private Ryan” was made.
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