In high school, my two main history teachers were hippy radicals from the 60s, so I vividly remember learning about the Vietnam War, but don’t have much memory of learning about WWII in school, at least. Since high school, I’ve seen movies about it, read about it, and felt like I had a general sense of the war before we arrived in Normandy on vacation. But, as with most things in life, nothing can prepare you for the real thing – not even Hollywood.
When we arrived in Normandy, we had reservations to stay at a French gîte (sort of like a cross between a B&B and a pension) which had a WWII expert as an owner. We heard that this man loved to impart his knowledge and family history of the war to any guests who were interested. Just our kind of place!
The gîte was about 5K from Omaha Beach and the night we arrived our room wasn’t ready so we headed down to Omaha Beach to sit on the beach (me) and take a swim in the cold water (Tim & kids). At the beach, I was impressed with how well-preserved the area was – with no development whatsoever – and also how somber I felt being there. It sort of felt like all of the stories I had ever heard about the war were somehow centered around this spot and there I was standing on it. A little bit surreal.
Once I sat down on the beach, I was able to let all of the somberness go and see the situation for was it really was at that moment – a really beautiful beach with so many people enjoying everything about it. It suddenly started to feel like a spot filled with more hope than sadness.
Later that night, we went back to the gîte and had dinner with the owners, François and Marie. François spent the dinner telling us about his family’s involvement with the war – his uncle’s house on Omaha Beach was bombed, had American paratroopers land in the garden, and is one of only 2 original houses still standing along the beach. That evening he took us down to the bluff above Omaha Beach to show us some of the German bunkers which are still standing. The boys couldn’t believe it – it was so creepy/interesting. One of the bunkers is still intact and we went inside to see where the German lookouts lived. I had complete chills standing in that square room underground.
We spent the next few days going to nearly every military museum and historic place related to WWII. It was so interesting, the boys lost all desire to play at the beach. They only wanted to see more historical monuments and I have to admit, I did too. It was hard not to notice how many people from around the world were visiting these living monuments; like Pointe du Hoc, the bluff housing massive German bunkers which was bombed by the Americans. The site (enormous bomb craters and all) has been preserved exactly as it was when the war ended. Truly remarkable.
On one of the last nights, François, who is also a WWII reinactor, offered to take the boys for a ride in the US Army jeep that his grandfather bought after the war. It’s in mint condition and outfitted exactly as it would have been during the war. I’m not sure if it was the jeep or the fact that there were no seatbelts, but the smiles were impossible to miss.
The day we left the gîte, François gave us a little container of sand from Omaha Beach to take with us. During the ride home, the boys took turns holding it in the back seat. It’s hard to know how much of the trip they’ll remember when they’re older, but I can honestly say it’s a trip I’ll never forget.