NORMANDY, France -- Marines gazed over the embankment to Omaha Beach as waves washed upon the sand. Behind them stood marble grave markers neatly aligned in the lush green grass of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville sur Mer, France, where the flag of the United States flutters in from the ocean breeze.
More than 70 enlisted Marines with Headquarters and Service Company, Headquarters Marine Corps, Henderson Hall, and Marine Barracks Washington, D.C. toured United States military historical sights during a professional military education trip sponsored by Marine Corps University, May 23-27. After a full day of travel and a day touring Paris, the third day of the trip was spent in northern France touring monuments, memorials, historical sights and the final resting places of American World War II veterans.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial spans more than 172 acres and is the final resting place for more than 9,000 Americans, honored with white, Lasa Marble grave markers bearing the name, rank, unit and date of death of each American hero. Finely trimmed trees, greenery and flowers now decorate the hallowed ground, which saw chaos, combat and death as a battlefield during a tremendous Allied invasion beginning June 6, 1944.
“Seeing Normandy is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Sgt. Alexander Djnias, operations chief, Office of Marine Corps Force Reserve, Naval Support Facility Arlington, Virginia. “Seeing Omaha Beach and the cemetery gave a little perspective on what American soldiers did. This experience has been very humbling.”
Led by a French tour guide of the cemetery, Marines walked the steps of the memorial, gazed upon names of service members who are missing in action engraved on tablets in the Garden of the Missing, stood in the cemetery chapel and walked among the headstones pausing to hear the story of one brave Army soldier interred in the cemetery.
The Marines continued the tour by traveling west passing by farms and country residences that fly the flag of the United States along side the flag of their homeland. Hedgerows are observed knowing these were obstacles to troops as they continued on the battlefield from the beach during World War II. Markers and monuments are scattered in unlikely places, memorializing American troops, a unit, a skirmish or a service member.
Marines then visited Vierville sur Mer, where a monument to the National Guard stands overlooking a rocky shoreline of Omaha Beach. Two windows of a German bunker peek out from under greenery from a cliff-like hill overlooking the shoreline. Marines took photos, walked the shoreline and collected sand as they observed the atmosphere where troops came ashore during World War II.
Continuing west along the coast, Marines explored German bunkers, climbed over ruins of fortifications and looked down over the 100-foot cliffs to the ocean at Point du Hoc where a granite pylon stands on top of a bunker. The pylon honors Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs to cripple German guns and artillery. Groups of Marines followed trails along the coast observing the high cliffs, climbing into bunkers and rooms hallowed in the ground covered by grass and avoiding heaps of concrete ruins.
“The beaches and the cliffs were an awesome view and knowing history was made here; I took pictures of anything and everything I could to remember this experience,” said Gunnery Sgt. Rosa Rivas, operations chief, Marine Installations Command G-4.
By the evening, Marines explored the first city liberated by American troops, St. Mere Eglise, where the French flag flies alongside the flags of the Allied nations who helped to liberate France. The small town looks very similar to when American troops arrived for the first time. The bells of the church in the town square can be heard chiming every 15 minutes while Marines ventured into the town.
As the sun lowered in the sky, Marines ended the day at Utah Beach where a red, granite obelisk stands to honor U.S. troops. Marines walked on the beach to collect shells and sand, taking photos and also reenacted the events of D-Day using a full-size replica of an American landing boat manned with machine guns.
“I’m very thankful I’ve been able to come on this trip,” said Rivas. “History books and what other people tell you do not come close to see what you experience [here].