Travel

A landing at Normandy with remembrances of a day in 1944

Landing craft memorial at Utah Beach, outside the World War II museum, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Normandy, France.
Landing craft memorial at Utah Beach, outside the World War II museum, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Normandy, France. TheTravelMavens.com

Of all the war memorials and cemeteries dedicated to North Americans, the beaches and plots at Normandy are perhaps the most haunting.

On an early June day in 1944, as World War II charged toward deadly climaxes in Europe and in the Pacific, Pearl Molyneaux wondered where her boys and daughter were.

As my great-grandmother wrote in her diary, her son Silas, a bomber pilot, was in the Army Air Corps; son Max was in the Navy; daughter Roberta was serving in the Women’s Army Corps somewhere in England; her oldest grandson Glenn, my father, was in the Navy, training with Marines for future amphibious landings in the Pacific; and son Evan, an Army doctor, had left a month earlier to cross the Atlantic for Europe. She was at her home in western New York state.

Their lives, their courage and my great-grandmother’s diary were in my thoughts when I returned to Normandy this year to walk the beaches and visit the American Cemetery with a group from Uniworld’s new river vessel, Joie de Vivre. Among the excursions on Seine River cruises that start in Paris, a day at World War II memorials on the Normandy coast is the most popular, and for many the most emotional.

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The church of Sainte-Mere-Eglise where mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions arrived on June 6, 1944. Note the dummy paratrooper that represents John Steele (upper left). Steele, a U.S. paratrooper, hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before Germans took him prisoner. Steele later escaped. David G. Molyneaux TheTravelMavens.com

At age 37, Major Evan Molyneaux would land at Normandy, and he would doctor wounded soldiers in field hospitals during the next 11 months as Allied Forces fought their way across Europe, a service that earned him a bronze star.

During the next 15 months of war after her diary notations in June 1944, Pearl would note her worries whether her family would make it home. They did, all of them.

Of all the war memorials and cemeteries dedicated to North Americans, the beaches and plots at Normandy are perhaps the most haunting.

David G. Molyneaux

But so many American sons and daughters did not return. Their memorials, reminders of the Normandy invasion to rescue Europe starting June 6, 1944, still send shivers down the spines of American travelers who visit the beaches and saunter quietly along the rows of white crosses and stars that mark the plots of those who were lost, including 9,387 graves at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

Of all the war memorials and cemeteries dedicated to North Americans, the beaches and plots at Normandy are perhaps the most haunting.

I am mesmerized by the Normandy coast, not only because of the horrendously deadly battles that occurred here as a result of a landing from the greatest armada in world history, but also because of the setting — miles and miles of nearly empty beaches that 73 years later carry a reverence and the kind of silence that nature seems to command at a scene of what once was a long, noisy, unnatural, human-instigated conflagration.

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The American Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. David G. Molyneaux TheTravelMavens.com

Sometimes in summer the sun shines, skies are blue and calmness reigns over this Atlantic edge of Normandy. But more likely, at any time of year, travelers will meet serious shades of sea and sky gray. On my three visits, clouds tended to sweep and swirl; winds spit and rustled the land; and reminders of mayhem were still in the air.

Most places in the world where guided tour groups congregate are scenes of noise and commotion. That is part of their nature as tourist sites. Finding a place to sit and contemplate often is a difficult task, but not at the Normandy memorials. For miles, up and down this haunting coast, you may sit quietly alone on a park bench, a plot of beach, or a patch of grass next to the gravestone of a brave stranger.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

Going to Normandy

Memorials and beaches of the Normandy invasion on the Atlantic Coast of France lie about midway between Calais and Mont Saint-Michel. Guided tours of two to three days may also include visits to Mont Saint-Michel and the walled city of Saint-Malo. Bus tours from Paris may be done in a day, but the drive is three to four hours each way. The drive time is considerably less on tours offered by Seine river cruises to ports closer to the coast.

Guided organized tours to Normandy often include a ceremony with flowers to be laid on a grave and the bugle call of “Taps.”

The American Battle Monuments Commission (www.abmc.gov/) operates 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 27 federal memorial, monuments and markers throughout the world. On its website, you can research the records for people buried and memorialized at American World War I and World War II overseas, military cemeteries, along with those named on the Walls of the Missing at the East Coast Memorial, West Coast Memorial, and Honolulu Memorial.

At Normandy, the American Cemetery (www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/normandy-american-cemetery) is open to the public daily, except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April 15 to Sept. 15, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year.

Staff members in the visitor center (which has restrooms) will answer questions and, with a reservation, escort relatives to graves and memorial sites. Among the reading material available from the commission is a free copy of “American Armies and Battlefields in Europe,” which you may download from the website. 

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