If you get the chance to tour Normandy, I hope your itinerary includes a stop at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. The cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking the eastern end of Omaha Beach, known as “Bloody Omaha” after the D-Day invasion which began on June 4, 1944. You will certainly understand this nickname if you read books such as The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw. As part of the first wave of soldiers to land on ”Bloody Omaha,” nineteen young men from this rural Virginia town were killed almost immediately. Three more young men from Bedford died later on in the Normandy campaign.
Seventy-six years after D-day, this part of Omaha Beach, the Easy Red sector, remains pristine enough to put yourself back in time in order to reflect on the “ultimate sacrifice” that was made here. I would recommend walking on the path from the beach to the top of the bluff where the cemetery is located. You can marvel at how a small group of men from the 1st U.S. Infantry Division under the leadership of 1st Lieutenant John Spalding and Staff Sergeant Philip Streczyk managed to cross a minefield on the beach, cut through barbed wire, and struggle to the top of the bluff on a similar path. Spalding and Streczyk were among the many unsung heroes in World War II.
The afternoon I spent at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in June with a group of fourteen other teachers and our individual students was the highlight of the Albert H. Small Student/Teacher Institute called “Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom.” We did not come as tourists, but as participants and mourners in several special ceremonies. Our guide and master of ceremonies was Hans Hooker, the superintendent of the cemetery who made quite an impression on all of us. Mr. Hooker oversees one of the twenty-four overseas military cemeteries maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The American Cemetery in Normandy occupies 172.5 acres of land that is U.S. territory and it is where 9,387 American men and women who died in the Normandy campaign are buried, including 307 unknowns. All of the crosses and Stars of David face west toward home, the United States of America. There is also a Garden of the Missing where the names of 1,557 “missing in action” are engraved on a long, curved wall.
This cemetery is featured in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Two of the Niland brothers, Preston and Robert, whose story inspired the film, are buried here, along with three Medal of Honor recipients, including General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He is buried next to his brother, Quentin, who died in World War I. Quentin’s body was moved to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in 1955. Their graves are among the most visited in the cemetery, so to make their names stand out, the staff takes sand from Omaha Beach and rubs it into their engraved names.
At the beginning of our visit, the students participated in wreath-laying and flag-raising ceremonies at the Normandy Memorial where a 22-foot bronze statue called “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves” is located and at the end of our visit, the students participated in the flag-lowering ceremony. Between these ceremonies, there was a commemoration for fifteen soldiers who were selected by the students from their home state. As part of the institute’s “Fallen Soldier” project, the students were responsible for writing a eulogy based on intensive research about their individual soldiers.
Joshuah Campbell, the student I selected to attend the institute with me, delivered the final eulogy to his soldier, 1st Lieutenant William S. Gaillard, Jr., who was killed in action on June 17, 1944. Joshuah not only wrote a beautiful eulogy to this young man, he recited a poem he had written just the night before about the sacrifices that were made by Gaillard and others, and he also sang Danny Boy, once a popular funeral song.
After the students delivered their eulogies about their soldiers, Mr. Hooker presented each student with the flags of the United States and France after they had been placed in the soil of France, and asked them to take the flags home and share the experience with their friends and classmates. Mr. Hooker was very appreciative to learn the stories of the fifteen soldiers and he planned to add the students’ research to the more than 500 stories of others buried in the American Cemetery.
The day before we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, we paid our respects at La Cambe, the German cemetery, where 21,222 German soldiers are buried, most of them two to a grave and some in mass graves. Most of the soldiers were under the age of twenty. Inaugurated in 1961 by the German War Graves Commission and located on only seven acres, La Cambe was a former battlefield cemetery where both Allied and German servicemen were buried in two adjacent fields. The centerpiece of La Cambe is a large grassy mound of earth and stones over a mass grave of nearly 300 with a cross at the top. The black stone crosses are a contrast to the white Italian marble crosses and Stars of David at the American Cemetery. I picked up a pamphlet at the visitors’ center called “If the stones could talk…” and learned about the stories of some of the young men buried at La Cambe.
A German POW who was to be released on March 25, 1949, decided to do a favor for a Frenchman before he left to return home that afternoon. While he was burning some leaves and branches, an unexploded shell buried in the ground exploded and killed him. One grave marker has the names of twenty-two men who all died on the same day in a dynamite explosion near Bayeux. A fourteen-year-old German boy who went on an odyssey across Germany and France due to the chaos of war died of hunger in an Allied internment camp on July 14, 1945, just a couple of months after V-E Day, when the war ended in Europe. Perhaps the most famous grave at La Cambe belongs to Captain Michael Wittmann, a tank commander in the 12th SS Panzer Division, who had been awarded many medals for his bravery and skill. Killed when his own tank was destroyed during the D-Day invasion, he would lie in an unmarked grave with four of his men until their remains were recovered and reburied in 1983.
A German woman wrote in the visitors’ book at Cambe, “Even during my fourth visit to your grave, I am sorry that I cannot meet you. How many more children must lose their fathers through war?” A visit to these two cemeteries in Normandy will not answer that daughter’s question. However, your time spent in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial and La Cambe will be an unforgettable experience for you and your students. All generations born after World War II could learn a lesson or two from the sacrifices made by so many on both sides.
Readers, what cemeteries have you visited on your travels?
Editor’s note (2021): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.
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