Two years ago, on June 6, 2012, I fell in love with someone. A sailor in the United States Navy, a long-time American online friend on a visit to France, to whom I offered a tour of Paris and Normandy. We were in the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach. I had seats for the ceremony commemorating the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
People tell me I have the most romantic, cliche love story you can come up with – I can’t deny it. But while my significant other did stun me in his dress uniform, saluting the anthem proudly [insert patriotic “awwwws” and cheesy music here] I did not fall in love with just him that day.
We were approached by many veterans and their relatives, a couple of which told us their stories, the amazing recollections of what they had done 68 years before, remembered in detail. We met a Navy veteran who insisted on telling us that the Navy men who came ashore with the Army had been forgotten, and showed us, roughly, where he had been 68 years before. I listened to the stories of a 90-year-old French Résistant who was so decorated – justly so – it seemed like he would fall over if he leaned too much on one side. A lady threw herself at us, in tears, and wanted to take a picture of my sailor, because he reminded her so much of her father who was buried there. Another Navy veteran was excited as a child at Christmas to see “what the new uniforms looked like”, and had a picture taken with him for the “then and now” effect. Three C-130s flew us over, eliciting cries of excitement and happiness. National Commander of the American Legion Fang A. Wong gave a speech, officials laid down flowers, and it was over.
Later, I leaned on my friend’s arm to take off my shoes, walked into the sand of Omaha Beach until the sea touched my feet, and tried to imagine what it had felt like to stand there on June 6, 1944. I tried to picture the sea red with blood, the beach littered with bodies, and I couldn’t. We’ve all seen the photos, the movies, and yet, I still couldn’t picture it. I looked at those veterans around us, wondering what they were seeing, reliving. I also looked into the eyes of the man I fell in love with and I thought he must be thinking the same. It was a moment of sadness and happiness for all those present; for the both of us, it was also a moment of bonding over something that united our two countries. Things were never the same after that day for us. We promised each other something: we would be back someday, maybe on the 70th anniversary. Together.
Things don’t always go as you plan, and two years later, circumstances, duty, and work made me honor that promise alone. I considered not going; my family and colleagues made fun of me a few times about how much trouble I was going through to attend something so overly patriotic. Patriotism is not a virtue in France, either mocked or associated with far-right nationalism (for good reasons, as they utilize it loudly, wrongly, and frequently). But I got the opportunity to go, and I took it. Nevermind the extra day off to go pick up my invitation by hand and the 7 hour drive, I wanted to go, and I went.
The mood was slightly different this year. I arrived to a Normandy filled with celebrations, festive decorations, and events throughout the coast. Don’t get me wrong, it was the same on the 68th, but multiplied by a hundred times. Many houses in town of St-Aubin, near Juno beach, sported the colors of the Allies:
The hour long wait on the beach was worth it. The fireworks displayed on the night of the fifth, a tribute to what that night meant for the world 70 years ago, illuminated the entire coast in synchronized explosions, following a laser show by the different towns of the coast “talking” to each other. The town was crowded where we came to watch the fireworks. Thousands of overly excited people, speaking French, English, and tons of other languages came to see this.
After that, I was so ready for the ceremony on the morning; yes, getting up three hours later, frantically driving to the checkpoint, boarding the guests convoy buses in the well-organized mess that was the morning of the 6th in Caen no longer scared me. It should have. On June 6, gone was the intimate quietness of the Normandy American Cemetery that I remembered. Helicopters filling the sky, police convoys, cars with tinted windows, heavy airport-like security awaited us. I admit it, it was a bit overwhelming, and certainly less friendly than the ceremony I had attended two years before, but I suppose the circumstances were very different.
I am glad I made the drive. I am glad I stuck to my plan and attended, despite the fact that out of the many young sailors in dress blues I saw that day, none of them was the one who should have been there with me.
I am glad I was there before the ceremony started, when not everybody was yet seated, allowing us some quieter time in the cemetery.
I am glad (and thankful) to have had the opportunity to come back to pay my respects to the men buried there, who died to liberate a country they had never seen.
At first, we were all as noisy, excited, and impatient as children. After all, two Presidents were gracing us with their presence. The ambiance was not at all the one that surrounded us on the morning of the 68th anniversary. It was one of celebration, excitement. Remembrance, but remembrance of the Liberation, of the result of those long hours fought and re-fought on Hell’s Beach. Anticipation was in the air.
Then, the President of the United States arrived:
Silence fell over the cemetery when the ceremony began. The silence threw me back to 2012, to the reverence, the quietness. I realized those men behind the presidents, they were the men who had liberated us. They had been there. Their brothers were buried here. They were over 90; it was very hot outside; they were far from home. But they were here.
The anthems played. I remembered 2012 – I remembered not knowing what to do when the American anthem had played. I mouthed the words of La Marseillaise, like every Frenchman there, standing quietly. But when the Star-Spangled Banner came on, I saw those veterans give their best salute, those men who barely had the strength to stand up but did it anyway, proudly and without anyone’s help. The crowd began to sing, and so did I. It was timid at first, but by the “rockets’ red glare” everyone who knew the lyrics was singing, and on the screen, I could see the veterans tear up.
President Hollande’s speech was honorable, but it was nothing like President Obama’s, who made me tear up several times. As he honored both the World War II veterans and the 9/11 “warrior generation”, the words fell true, even to this French girl whose involvement with the US military remains limited. World War II stories never left my family. My grandfather remembers his father shoving him into a ditch to escape the bombings. My great-grandfather was made a prisoner of war and escaped a German work camp when news of the landings spread the chaos – he would likely not have died a free man without them. Another of my great-grandfathers owes his life to a remorseful German soldier who could not shoot a group of 19-year-old Résistants.
And without the men buried there, those might never have become the “stories” I listened to with wonder on my great-grandfather’s lap. Without them, I would never have been standing there, on this spot that meant so much to me, a citizen of a free country and, like it or not, America’s friend.
President Obama reminded us of the courage of those men, who saw what was awaiting them on the beach and fought on. Every so often – every year, in fact, I see long articles written to explain to the good people on the Internet that D-Day was not a honorable day, that it was messy, bloody, that the men were terrified. That courage, bravery, are notions we use as decorations to persuade ourselves that good causes exist.
And every year, they disgust me.
Who wouldn’t be scared, when they saw what Omaha Beach looked like in front of them that day? Who wouldn’t be terrified? And which of those journalists, seeing that, would have jumped off his boat and went on to fight, lose, fight again, and win that beach? Which of those cynical columnists would have walked through the mutilated bodies of their friends, climbed uphill while getting repeatedly shot at, jumped from an airplane in the middle of the night without knowing for sure where they were going to land?
You can say a lot of it was adrenaline, lack of choice, anything you want. I believe you always have a choice. I believe they all made theirs that day, for a country that they hadn’t seen, for people they didn’t know, for a cause they believed in. And I am grateful for it. I do believe true courage exists.
Maybe that’s why, when President Obama called for a spontaneous standing ovation, every single person I could see jumped from their seats at his word, even those who, I know, would spend the rest of the day criticizing him. It was not a time for politics. It was a time for Taps playing solemnly, for cannons to fire at the sea, for remembering the sheer emotion I had felt in the same place, two years before.
Again, we made the veterans cry. Again, we cried too, to see them so filled with pride.
“Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage and goodness is possible, stop and think of these men.”
I do, Mr. President. That was why I was there. That was why I wanted to honor them properly, despite the logistical nightmare, despite the long drive, despite the heat, the wait, everything. And yes, my sailor should have been there with me, but he wasn’t. It was still a duty for me to come back and be there on that day, like we promised.
A duty to him, to our love, and to those men and women who gave their lives so long ago for something that was much bigger than them.
And a duty to the old man who, on the night of June 5 to June 6, 2014, brought his folding chair and his World War II veteran cap to the beach he may have liberated 70 years before, sat down, and drank his beer.
You guys should have seen the smile on his face when the fireworks began.