Tuesday, 11 June 2019 20:16

Dispatches from Normandy Part VIII: A final day at the final resting place of U.S. troops

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Jon Ring holds the VFW Auxiliary flag on Omaha Beach while touring Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Jon Ring holds the VFW Auxiliary flag on Omaha Beach while touring Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Photos courtesy of Jon Ring

My final full day in Normandy for this trip. I'll begin the trip back to North Carolina in the morning and will quickly shift gears to head down to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, next week for JROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge. We will bring about 20 of our Raider cadets for a week of awesome training and team building — getting to do all the fun things that you would get to do in a year in the Army all in a week. At the end of the following week, I will return to Normandy with a small group of cadets and take them around to learn and reinforce what I have just experienced. I hope they are ready for it!


One cannot make a trip to Normandy without visiting the American cemetery at Colleville sur Mer. Since we attempted to go on the 7th of June when weather scratched our jump, but couldn't get anywhere close with the road closures and continued ceremonies, we went today. It was the perfect day for it too — partly cloudy and cool. Right in between T-shirt and sweater type weather. I brought both. 

Drove the coastline down Utah Beach and then cut inland toward Carentan. Since we were passing through "Dead Man's Corner" again, I figured that a quick stop to see the new D-Day Experience would be good. They have built it since the last time I was here. It is a simulation that first provides a commanding officer's operations brief for the invasion of Normandy. After the brief, everyone is loaded into a C-47 simulator (an actual fuselage of a C-47 with modifications) for a ride into Normandy on the initial invasion. Everyone sat down and buckled up. They closed the door. I couldn't help but think two things: there is no anchor line cable on this airplane; and the paratroop doors were removed from the airplanes before they took off in England. 

The windows had monitors that made it look like you were flying from England to France. It struck me as weird that there were no wings outside the aircraft. The 30-second flight across the channel was rudely interrupted by enemy flack as we got over the Cotentin peninsula. I was thinking that we should get up and hook up ... oh yeah, we have no parachute or anchor line cable to hook to. 

The aircraft takes a significant downward turn. We're going down. I lean forward. The simulator vibrates a little and comes to a stop — and is obviously on fire. Everyone just sits there. I'm saying, "Hey, shouldn't we get out of this burning airplane?" I'm ready to get up and start evacuation procedures when the door opens. I get out quickly. 

If I ever go to that simulation again, I am going to treat the rest of the "paratroopers on their way to Normandy" to a real experience. 

I had lunch in Carentan because it was already 1 p.m. and I've found that if you don't eat prior to 2, you aren't going to find a place that will serve food. Unless you want fries. They call them just fries here … or frites. 

Drove to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery that overlooks it. Many people think of this cemetery when thinking of the World War II movie "Saving Private Ryan" and the powerful scenes played out here. This hallowed ground exceeds the emotions evoked in that movie at every turn. The Americans buried here never went home. Never. Their families never saw them again. Ever. From the time they shipped off, they never got to see them again. There are 9,388 Americans buried here. There are no future generations ... the bloodline ends with them. 

I've been here before, but every time is different. Of course, one immediately notices the immaculate maintenance. Even with parts of the area roped off to allow work crews to complete teardown of the platforms and supporting apparatus for the ceremonies, the place is dressed right. The headstones are aligned laser straight. They are clean and standard with the name, rank, date of death, unit, and home state. Most are crosses, but there are several Star of David stones. I realize that there is no birthday. I don't think that occurred to me before. We don't know how old they were … I assume young. If they were fighting at that time, they were young — too young to die, that's for sure. 

The headstones with names and units and dates on them are actually sort of encouraging in a way. Although their family never saw them again, at least they know what happened to them … and where to visit them. I really feel for the families of the 307 headstones that say: "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God". These unknown remains were not sufficient for the time to be able to identify. Their family doesn't get the full story. I wish they did. 

Upon arrival, I notice that it is still quite busy. People are all over looking at everything that may be seen. I walked to the flagpole and checked out the wreaths that had been laid by various heads of state and dignitaries during the ceremony on the 6th. Two of them catch my attention — one from the N.C. State marching band and one from the president of France. They are both red and white and beautiful. I look across the cemetery and it seems that people are all over. I think that it is good to have so many people visiting these young men. Then I notice that, actually, nearly half of the cemetery is roped off to allow the work crews to do their jobs. Nobody is visiting the graves on the left side of the cemetery. That is a shame. I hope there wasn't anyone trying to visit a specific grave that wasn't able to. 

A wreath from the N.C. State University Marching Band sits at the American Cemetery  at Colleville sur Mer.

 

I walked a couple rows out into the cemetery and turned around to look at the names. Unbelievably, I was looking directly at a headstone of Pvt. Anthony Hitztaler of the 507th PIR who was murdered at Hemevez. I placed a penny on his headstone and took a photo. Powerful. I'm glad that I visited this young paratrooper. 

Headstone of Pvt. Anthony Hitztaler of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment who was killed on D-Day. 

 

I continue walking down the line and looking at headstones. They are in a huge formation. It's like a division review. Wow. Actually, I realize that there is pretty much a division standing here. I can't imagine what would happen if we lost a division of soldiers in the timespan that all of these died. Massive loses for freedom and liberty. I'm struck by the names that are all the same names that I served with over the years. Some of them died, too. I'm struck by the units — the divisions and regiments that I served in. Some that I served overseas with. I think of units that I served in that were occupied elsewhere in the world during the Normandy campaign. I obviously did not know any of the young Americans that are buried in Colleville sur Mer, but I feel like I know them all. 

I am impressed by the school groups that are at the cemetery. There are grade-schoolers and teenagers. They are all well-behaved and respectful. As a group of youngsters — like first- through third-graders — was being instructed by their chaperones on what to do as they scatter out to look at graves, I am directed to a headstone of a young man from Michigan who died on Christmas day, 1944. The kids fan out and begin reading the names from headstones. I immediately think, "So long as their names are spoken, they are with us." I duck into the shade of a nearby tree because I am absolutely overwhelmed with emotions. I take a moment and continue. 

Young school children walk through the cemetery learning about the Americans who died for them. 

 

I work my way to the end of the right side of the graves and then back up the first portion of the left side. I enter the small circular domed chapel in the center of the cemetery. It has two pews that are roped off, but I bypass the rope and sit down. When finished, I stand up to leave. A bugler, out of nowhere, starts playing taps. If I'm not on the edge already, now taps ...  

Turns out, they were taking down the flags at 5:07 p.m. and decided that "Retreat" and "To the Colors" were not the right tunes to play today. OK. I know they are just trying to do the right thing. Sometimes, what seems like the right thing is the wrong thing. 

One last stop at Omaha Beach. Specifically, where the 116th Infantry of the 29th Infantry Division came ashore. There are a couple of monuments there that must be seen. The spot I go to is of significant tactical and operational importance — now, as well as back then. When doing a beach landing or amphibious assault, the unit taking the beach must continue the attack inland or risk being pushed back into the sea. This spot is where vehicles may be able to drive if the beach the easiest. It is where there is a place to get vehicles off the beach and inland. The defending Germans knew that this area was of significance and defended it well. I cannot imagine the absolute courage that each man had to muster to reach the objective. My hat is off to them. I also took the opportunity to fly the VFW Auxiliary flag on Omaha Beach. It has gotten around the battlefield here. I hope the continued spirit of service to ensure freedom and liberty shines on in our VFW Auxiliary. I'm confident that it will!

Perspective is the watchword for today. So many young Americans died in a few-month timeframe and are buried at overseas cemeteries. The famous line in “Saving Private  Ryan” was "Earn this." While that was directed at that one private, I believe we have an obligation to earn the sacrifices of these young men and their families. I am committed to trying to earn the prize that they won for us and I hope you are as well. 

I will sign off with this dispatch, but will resume with cadet reports as we continue our journey this summer. Thank you for your continued support!

Vive la France!

Vive la Liberte!

 

Retired Army Lt. Col. Jon Ring, JROTC instructor at Richmond Senior High School, is a member of the Liberty Jump Team and will be participating in events this week commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944.