One of the highlights of my trip to France earlier this month was visiting the region of Normandy, northwest of Paris. I’d never been outside Paris and was so excited to visit more of the French countryside – especially this region. I have more to share about places we visited in Normandy- including Bayeuax, Honfleur, and Giverny – but I’ll save those for another day.
The beaches on the north coast of Normandy were the landing sites of the Allied countries’ military operations on what is called now called D-Day to reclaim France and eventually the rest of Europe from the Nazis. There are 5 different landing beaches along the coast of Normandy, each given a different code name by the Allies. (The beaches are also known by their original French names.)
I’m a history nerd/lover and I’ve read so much about World War 2. The sacrifices of a whole generation of people all over the world are humbling. I’ve always wanted to see the D-Day beaches, a site of SO MUCH sacrifice to liberate a captive continent and millions of suffering people.
We visited Omaha Beach, not far from the American Cemetery. The metal sculpture is called Les Braves, symbolizing Hope, Fraternity, and the Rise of Freedom. There are also flags representing each of the Allied Nations.
And of course the beach front was huge. We were only able to visit Omaha Beach. As I mentioned, there were 5 beaches involved in the D-Day landings and seeing just the one beach gave me even greater appreciate for the scope of the operation. The troops at Omaha Beach sustained the highest casualties.
The American Cemetery is a short drive from Omaha Beach, on the cliff looking out at the sea. The setting is so beautiful, and it’s immaculately cared for. We were lucky enough to visit on a beautiful clear, sunny day. The reverence was palpable and inspiring. Near the entrance there’s an excellent museum with lots more information about the invasion, the soldiers who took part and the response from the French people they liberated.
Most years, the Cemetery has over a million visitors a year. We saw multiple groups of French students. It’s very clear that this is a place that is cared for and reverenced by the people of Normandy.
This is one of the etched quotes at the memorial that moved me most. In case the photo is difficult to read, the text says, “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for a conquest, it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: all we asked… was enough.. soil in which to bury our gallant dead.” – General Mark W. Clark.
These soldiers didn’t come to occupy or conquer – only to liberate and give France – and the rest of Europe – back to their people. The only territory asked for was a place to bury those who made the ultimate sacrifice. There are over 9,000 graves at the cemetery – most very well documented but still many soldiers who could not be identified at burial as was the case with this marker which reads: “Here Rests in Honored Glory, A Comrade In Arms Known But to God”. Also a large wall listing names of those whose remains were not recovered.
This is truly America at it’s best, sacrificing it’s greatest asset – its Youth and Future – to stop tyranny, fascism, white-supremacy, oppression, and cruelty. It all hit extra close to home as I now have an 18-year-old son – the same age as so many of these young American GI’s.
It still chokes me up to think about it. (The statue in the background is entitled “The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves”. Just reading that title out loud made me weepy.)
This marker had temporary sand placed in the etched name to make it easier to read. The headstones face West – towards America. There are no birthdates on these markers – some say so that it wouldn’t be as tragically clear how young many of these GI’s were. There are markers with Stars of David for Jewish soldiers and other markers for Muslim soldiers.
The number of headstones is truly sobering. Freedom isn’t free.
As was the case with the whole trip – there was so much we didn’t get to or would have loved to see more of. One of the extra cool things – we were there only days before the D-Day celebrations, still strongly celebrated and commemorated in Normandy towns and villages every year. We could see a lot of the preparations – lots of Allied Flags, people dressed in 1940’s period clothing, vintage jeeps and planes. One vintage 1940’s era plane even flew over the cemetery while we were there. It was so moving.
While I was standing in line to pick up our rental car in Paris the day before, another American family got in line behind me. They asked where I was going and I said, “Normandy” and they replied, “We are too!” After a bit the mom took the 3 young kids to find a place to sit down so I asked the dad – who was wearing an official Army backpack – “What are you doing in Normandy?”
His reply caught me off guard.
“Jumping out of a plane.”
He then went on to explain the he was participating in the official D-Day commemorations – including reenactments – that the US Military and French government hold together every June 6. I got both chills and teary as he was talking. I am so thankful for those brave men in 1944. And I’m equally thankful for brave men and women today who still sacrifice a lot to protect the freedom we can so easily take for granted.
And I’m thankful for their families too! As I walked to our rental car, I passed the wife and kids. And I thought of my own husband, siblings and mother-in-law who were a military family, supporting my father-in-law during his 20+ years of service in the Army. And I turned around to go thank her too. The sacrifice of our military family members is just as real and it’s A LOT. Not getting to choose where you get to live/be stationed, moving frequently, being separated from your family member for long periods of time, worrying about their safety and well-being. Not to mention that same worry as the parent of an active military member!
What does all of this have to do with quilting? I’m so glad you asked. Quilts of Valor is one of my favorite quilting charities. It’s an organization created to “cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts.” You can ready all about Quilts of Valor here. And there are so many ways to contribute – whether it’s donating a quilt or one block. And it’s a great time of year to stock up on red, white and blue fabrics because they’re often on sale during July.
Already have too much red, white, and blue fabric? Consider donating it to your local Quilts of Valor chapter!
I know many of you are already familiar with Quilts of Valor. Thanks to all of you who sew for this awesome organization.
“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life…”
We can take this for granted. Nor forget. What unites us is SO much more meaningful than what divides us.