The cathedral is so much like Notre Dame and the other great Gothic icons but in many ways better-- it's smaller and just slightly less grand so not as haughty and intimidating-- a lot more relatable. We walked over on Saturday afternoon and they were starting mass. I lit a candle and sat a while. I felt like part of a congregation instead of a tourist.
One of my goals on this trip was to see the D Day beaches. I’ve long held the opinion that any baby boomer worth their salt needed to go there if possible and stand on that beach and say “Thank You.”
I am nothing if not a baby boomer. The neighborhood I grew up in was built after the war by mostly veterans and populated by hoards of kids my age conceived as Welcome Home acts of love. I knew what branch of service everybody's father had been in and we combined all their old equipment to play with. David and Tommy Russell, next door, had their dad's old Navy hammock and my school book bag was an old Army green canvas ruck sack.
Beaven's father and his uncles had deferments from the war because the family's wholesale bakery was classified as essential to the war industry and that was fine with Papa Els. My father's reserve position was activated and he was gone so long during the war that my sister didn't know who he was when he got home. There were seven years difference between my sister and myself. It was a long war at my house. But Daddy didn't see much combat.
They say the way to tell a hero is to check the guy in the corner who isn't talking. I learned a lot about heroes on our D Day tour. Our guide put us in a small bus and told us some great stories while he drove us to Pointe du Hoc and Omaha beaches and finally to the American Cemetery.
The two battlegrounds have very different terrain even though they're only a few miles apart. Pointe du Hoc is a steep cliff and Omaha is a real beach where people sunbathed while their children played in the sand. And, in fact, that day the beach was filled with families playing together when we drove up.
Growing up in a land-locked city I needed a short lesson on tides. D Day was timed for a day that would have both no tide and a full moon. They had postponed the landing once because of the weather and rough seas. If they didn't go on June 6th they would have had to delay it for months and morale would plummet.
The guide took us through the strategy and execution of the day. He referred back to the movies Saving Private Ryan and the Longest Day as the two best reference materials on D Day.
He talked about the bombing prior of the invasion--how they were trying to take out the big guns that would be able to pierce the armor of the battleships and the Higgins boats that would be coming in on D Day. That was an important task before the main event could even start. It was a startling realization 75 years later how rudimentary the technology of the day was compared to what we have now. Even though they could see the 6 guns they wanted to take out it was hit a "hit or miss" method of releasing the bombs: if you over shot your target you could hit the civilians in the town; if you released the bombs too early they would either hit the Allied forces in the water or land useless in the sea itself and not hit anything.
The craters the bombs left still have pockmarks on the beach.
In the end what got those guns was the bravery of the men who came in on foot to do the job when the aerial attacks failed. He spoke of a thousand men unloading on the beach every hour. Of the blood in the water and stepping over dead bodies on the beaches. And how as the day wore on how the advantage of the day gradually changed as a thousand men kept coming in every hour.
Once the troops got past the beach the objective was to get into the town. They were able to land tanks onto the beach to drive into the town but the next obstacle for the tanks was the hedgerows.
I got to see the hedgerows up close. These are fences made of vegetation.
I had heard how hard it made it for the tanks to advance beyond the beach and into the town. Now I know why. And I'm not even sure the photos will show; it's something you almost have to see in person. The vegetation is so thick you can't really make out anything. Hedgerows are the most dense foliage I've ever seen in my life.
Hedgerows weren't something a farmer went out and built one day to keep cows out of his pasture. They developed since medieval times as the farmers plowed everything inside and left the rubble alongside the edge of his property. They are natural fences made of dirt piled up over centuries with trees, vines and brambles growing inside the piles of dirt. Centuries. Centuries of time for foliage and vines and bark and trees to grow and tangle in and around each other. Centuries for a farmer to pile dirt from his field to the edge of his plot of land. A tank would hit the pile of dirt, turn upward and then either fall backwards or balance atop the row like a turtle on its back. Or it would hit a tree so thick it couldn't knock it down.
Once the troops made it alive passed the beach on D Day the hedgerows still slowed their progress toward the cities. D Day was not a walk on the beach.
But we heard stories.
We heard that when a relative (now more grand kids than children) comes to visit a grave they get a personal escort who takes them to the grave. (Otherwise, no one is allowed to go to the individual graves. They are roped off.) There at the grave the cemetery personnel have several ceremonies they perform for the family. They are presented with small flags they can either leave at the grave or take home with them. A cemetery representative will rub sand from the beach into the name on the gravestone to make the name show up better. As time goes by the sand dries and blows away but for a few days you can tell that someone has had a relative visit the grave.
Our guide knew so many stories of the men in the graves that he told us one guy had had family come visit the other day and he sounded almost like it was his own family.
He told us the story of the town of Bedford, Virginia who lost more men on Utah beach than any one town that day. About a third of the young men in their town died on June 6, 1944.
And the stories of multiple sons in one family who died. The plot of Saving Private Ryan was based on the Niland brothers. When Robert, Preston and Edward Niland were reported dead the military sent in troops to bring home their sole surviving brother Private Fredrick Niland.
There was a fascinating story about twins who both died on D Day, one on the beach and one on a battleship. The one who went down on the ship was reported as missing in action and presumed dead. Seventy years later, using modern technology and a lot of detective work a researcher predicted which part of the boat he would have been in, divers found a body and using DNA identified the body as his. His body was recovered and was buried with his brother, becoming the only person to be listed twice in the cemetery, once on the monument as Missing and once in the ground under a gravestone.
But my own hero is the guy in the corner who never talked about his story. My step-father, Terry Mehaffie, was a lot like my husband--a quiet guy. All he ever said about his time in the war was that he was training to be a paratrooper but shattered his ankle on a practice jump. He spent D Day in the hospital. It was also his birthday. The only complaint he apparently ever made was that he didn't get the extra paratrooper pay because of some technicality.
But in his last few days of life, well into his 90's, he did very quietly tell that of all the guys in his outfit not one of them survived the day. They were all lost on D Day. Terry only survived because he messed up a practice jump and was in the hospital. He got to go home and have three boys. And never mentioned it.
I don't know how many men are in a platoon. But I do know that war makes men close. There's a lot of talk about survivor's guilt. But it's also kind of sad that Terry never had those guys to reminisce with after the war.
It's sad that 20 guys from Bedford, Virginia died. And that 20,000 died on D Day. Or 85,000 died in WWII.
Death is a lonely-maker. Maybe that's why those heroes in the corner are so quiet.
I did say Thank you at the beach. We went to Pointe du Hoc and Omaha beach and the American Cemetery. Each time I looked out at the water and quietly said "Thank You." I looked up into the sky at Terry Mehaffie's friends and said "Thank You" and the next day I went to the Bayeaux Cathedral and told God "Thank You."
I am one of those kids who played with left over war goods. My Daddy came home. I get to have Jewish friends. And Muslim friends. I just visited a united Europe and sat in an airport where I was surrounded by five different languages in an atmosphere of peace.
Thank you to all the men and women who make that possible.