The Beaches of Normandy Weekend: Part 3

Trip Start Sep 13, 2012
Trip End Dec 21, 2013

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Flag of France  ,
Saturday, November 3, 2012

After leaving the cemetery, we headed up the coast to the beach memorial further along Omaha beach. The whole day was overcast, so we couldn't tell where the silver sky ended and the reflection of it in the sea began. I thought I would feel some sort of profound sadness standing there, in the place where so many have died; but all i felt was the wind. It fact, it was kind of serine. The events of 70 years ago are just a shadow of what remains. In truth, people use this beach as a vacation spot now; the horrors of its origin are just a story. 

We only spent a few minutes on the sand, but it was enough time to make silly footpaths patterns and collect some sand as a souvenir. The closer we got to the water the deeper our shoes sank, and the harder it was to get them out. We all piled back onto the bus trailed by sandy footprints.  

Our next stop was a drive up the nearby cliff up to Point-du-Hoc. This place, though familiar to the French, is virtually unknown to the rest of we tourists. Point-du-Hoc is, (was), a vitally important German base atop a cliff, (the point), which, on D-Day, was extremely difficult point for the Australian and Canadian rangers to take. In the film we watched in the museum, there was footage of the rangers scaling the cliff from the bottom with hooks and grapples, taking fire as they tried to basically free-climb the vertical cliff. Today, what remains of the base is open to the public as a historical landmark. It has been kept the way it was left after the Allied forces overran it. There are dozens of deep craters all over the area where the Allied bombs struck the base. Most of the German construction is below ground, but the craters are deep, so many of the bunkers are damaged, if not destroyed. 

We were allowed to walk around and venture into any bunkers we wanted. Haley and I separated from the group early on, (which, retrospectively, was a poor decision because we almost scared ourselves to death a bunch of times), and explored the craters and bunkers on our own. We walked up and down into the craters, around their rims, and over their damage. Many of the craters have developed distinct footpaths through them as a result of so many people walking through them. There has been no other change to the landscape except that the holes now have grass growing in them, covering the damage. The day was damp and cold, at one point the sky started spitting at us. It seemed to be the perfect ambiance for the dank, dark places we were crawling into. 

Haley and I made a point to explore every bunker we could find. Almost all of them were just dark, cold, stone rooms underground. A couple had lights in them so tourists could get a good look, but, overall, we needed to rely on Haley's iPhone flashlight app. At one point, we were convinced we were going to get stuck, (or taken by the evil spirits of the dead German soldiers in the bunkers), and almost called for help from some of the cute Royal Marines strolling around the base. They were obviously there to learn as we were, but they seemed much more apt to climb into small, ill-lit, cold places than we were. Before going into one of the bunkers, we asked a couple of the marines who were coming out, what we could expect in there:

Me: "So what's in there?"
Cute Marine: "Close your eyes."
Me: "What? Why?"
Cute Marine: "Because that's what's in there."
Me: "We have a flashlight."
Cute Marine: "Ok, so maybe that's not what's in there."

His accent was so cute we didn't really care what was in that bunker. Ok, we kind of cared; we didn't end up going in that one. In most of the bunkers we just found large, empty, square rooms with low ceilings and poor ventilation. To get into the bunkers, (especially the damaged ones), we had to climb down slippery, muddy stairs that should be deemed unsafe for human travel. In almost every bunker, we were alone. We rubbed up against walls and doors that had, we don't even know what, on them. We saw spiders the size of our hands, snails stuck to ceilings, and tripped into countless puddles of water. Every turn of Haley's phone light revealed a new horror beneath the crater ridden landscape. In one bunker we found an oven: a human-sized oven. It seemed almost too cliche. More likely it was for cooking, but the human burning explanation made the whole thing seem creepier. With every new discovery, we tried to guess what that particular bunker was used for. Some, like the one with the oven, were most likely the kitchen. While others, like the large, square rooms with reinforced beams on the ceilings, were probably barracks for sleeping, showering, or one of those rooms with big tables with maps and plans all over them, (the war planning rooms). 

  Even though it was during the day, the only source of light for these bunkers came in through the open doors. When the base was functional, the bunkers must have had gas-powered or electric light systems set up. It is hard to imagine living underground in one of these places, with so many other soldiers, on the cold, northern coast of France.   

When the bombs started to drop from the Allied planes and ships, it must have been mayhem. There is a little bit of footage in the film we watched in the museum from the chaos at Point du Hoc after the Allied forces were spotted. Since the Germans had no idea about the attack, one moment the watchman looked up and the horizon was clear; the next, thousands of Allied ships and planes were headed straight for them. Judging from the shear number of craters and their coverage, it is safe to assume that it was basically raining bombs. Those Germans built some pretty strong bunkers, though, because most of them, (if they were not directly hit), are still in tact. 
Standing on the edge of a crater, it is hard to imagine that the area used to be one, flat piece of land, broken up only by machine gun nests. It's strange to think that, at one point, this place was an active base filled with soldiers going about their military life; they slept here, ate here, fought here. And now, this place is a shadow of what it once was: a ruin of an event. The place it used to be whispers through the wind, over the hills, down into the craters, and through the damp concrete.        

Heading back to the bus, Haley and I were the extremely late, (and the last ones, of course), because it started to rain and we got lost in the craters. All of the holes started to look the same and we could not find our way out. When we finally did, we ran back to the bus, past the information center with the sewage construction making the area reek, and toward an irritated Jane, frantically waving in our direction. She probably thought we were lollygagging on purpose. Then we loaded the bus, seat belted in, and left Point du Hoc behind. 

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Haley on

This was totally my favorite part of the trip! It was...incredible, scary, and so much fun all at the same time!

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