Monday, September 27, 2010

Dispatch from Normandy

"Jack, I feel lower than a pill bug under stones in my mother's cellar floor. This Grippe français has got me tighter than a school marm's hand on a bad boy's ear and all I'll do is gripe, so maybe you'd better leave me here and go check out those WW II things I've been seeing you eyeball on the map for the last week or so..."

I left Dolly-girl to mend and headed for Normandy. First stop, 6 Across: Normandy invasion town...How many times have I penciled St. Lo into a Rex Parker, and now here I was in the famous village. Rex calls it "one of the crosswordiest places in the world." There was a monument to the liberators and a giant flea market in the main street. I drove on.

I followed the signs. Omaha Beach. Cimetière militaire américain de Colleville-sur-Mer. I was surprised. No souvenir stands, no hoopla, no Giant Diorama like at Gettysburg. I wondered what another 50 or 100 years will bring. I parked at the back of the parking lot and walked to the visitor center where I took a picture of this very interesting fountain, and skipped the advice to visit the visitor's center first.

The next stop is an overlook of Omaha Beach with a map explaining the order of battle. I looked down at the beach and tried to imagine what it was like without thinking about The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan. I really couldn't imagine what it would look like or how the hell they ever got to the top.

I walked down the steps to the beach and stood on the dune by the water. I touched the sand. I knew it wasn't sand that was there on June 6, 1944. I wanted to pick up a rock or touch the water, but somehow it didn't seem like it was mine, although I suppose it is mine. That's what it was about. A few days ago, I said to Nancy that I didn't think I needed to go to Normandy because WW II wasn't "my war."

Past the beach access and map, I turned a corner into a manicured cemetery with thousands of crosses, and Stars of David mixed in here and there. I walked through them, looking back to see names and dates and units. All the names face west--towards home, I suspect. Enlisted next to officers, Michigan next to Mississippi, Army next to Air Corps next to Navy. Some from before D-Day, some died after Germany surrendered, but before they made it home. Lots on June 6, 1944. A few had flowers--someone visited recently. Most did not. Some will never have a visitor who knows who they are. I think about the wars going on today.

There are no more Honored Comrades Known But To God--DNA makes sure of that. I looked at the names of the 1,557 who died, but whose bodies were not recovered. I suppose some are honored comrades, but I'm sure many are in La Manche--the sleeve--which seems like a much more appropriate name than the English Channel. I looked for the name of a friend of my mother's who died in La Manche--Bob Evans. He wasn't there.

I walked to the farthest place in the cemetery and visited the grave of Daniel Knapp, First Division, 18th Infantry, who was from New York and who died on June 7, 1944. I thought maybe his was the least visited grave, being the farthest from the visitor's center. But maybe it's really someone in the middle. I looked at Daniel Knapp's grave and realized that this was my war. It shaped my life more than any other. Wars are about the future, not the past. I am their future.

I walked back to the car past the stars and crosses and read, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Arkansas, Wyoming, Maryland, Georgia...PFC, SGT, 2LT, MAJ, PVT...Infantry, Armor, Infantry, Heavy Bomber Group, Infantry, Landing Craft Group, Airborne, Airborne,...June, July, June, August, September, June...

I drove back to Saint-Malo, through Saint-Lô, I thought about what the countryside looked like then and now. I was on a speedy 4-lane road, driving 130 km/hr, flying past McDonald's, gas stations, super markets, and this express food stop that seemed to have everything. War is about the future, but you don't get to specify the future, you just get to make sure there is one.

"You're pretty quiet, Jack. Have a good day?" "Yep. I learned a thing or two."


Elisabeth said...

Well said.

Dusty1979 said...

Danny Knapp was my father's best buddy during WWII. I'm so grateful that you went to his grave. I always heard stories about those times and my father missed Danny up to the day he died in 1993. Thank you for taking the time to visit his grave site. That brought tears to my eyes to see someone cared. My father was a Tec4 just like Danny and I know that was a rough time for him losing his buddy. There is a park in Laurens, NY (Danny's hometown) dedicated to Danny, Knapp Park. It's very small as is Laurens, but there's a wonderful gazebo there and a plaque for Danny. So glad to find your site while searching for stuff on Danny today in Memorial Day remembrance.

Jack D'Mestiere said...

Dusty1979, thank you so much for posting this comment. I often think of that visit and reading your words closed a loop that I never expected to be closed.