Kathy Manos Penn is a native of the “Big Apple,” who settled in the “Peach City” – Atlanta. A former English teacher now happily retired from a corporate career in communications, she writes a weekly column for the Dunwoody Crier. Read her blogs and purchase her book, “The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday” on her website theinkpenn.com.
When holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day roll around each year, I can't help but recall the awe-inspiring sights I saw in 2014 while bicycling Normandy with my husband.
The Omaha Beach Memorial was the most memorable and solemn experience for me, but coming in a close second was the Utah Beach D-day Museum and our visit to Sainte Marie du Mont. I have to agree with Rick Steves when he writes, "This is the best museum on the D-Day beaches...thorough yet manageable... [with] a series of fascinating exhibits and displays."
As we cycled a pleasant ten-mile route along the coast to reach the museum, we marvelled at the stunning Channel view occasionally interrupted by the remains of German bunkers. We wondered aloud what the lives of the Normans had been like during the occupation--a question answered for us when we toured the museum.
Like the Omaha Beach Memorial, this museum includes viewing rooms with films plus explanatory panels of photos, stories, and quotes. The museum has grown over the years, and its 2011 expansion added oral histories of American soldiers and Norman civilians alike, plus a B-26 Marauder and an original Higgins Boat landing craft.
We heard tales of the civilian population going hungry and secretly slaughtering dairy cows to feed their families. A quote from the museum founder explained, "We had a miserable life, a life that became increasingly harder and more miserable as time went by."
One story that caught our attention was that of Major David Dewhurst, an Army Air Force squad commander who flew the "final bombing run on the German stronghold WN5, moments before the Allied landing at Utah Beach," only to die in an auto wreck not long after returning home to Texas. I discovered later that his sons had only discovered their father's story upon visiting Utah Beach in 2007 and seeing his name and photo.
From Utah Beach, we cycled past a statue of Major Dick Winters, whose story you may recall from "Band of Brothers," and headed to Sainte Marie du Mont. There we stumbled on a Museum housed in a small shop. The proprietor explained that his shop had been German Headquarters for four years and Allied Headquarters for six months. With his little bit of English, he showed us the rooms where the Germans had drawn pictures on the walls, and then he cranked up a German siren, giving me cold chills. If you've ever seen a WWII movie, you know the sound.
We wandered the town square reading plaques that described the exploits of the soldiers who liberated the town. One plaque told the story of Paratrooper Ambrose Allie who was about to be executed when a US squad shot the Germans aiming at him. Another told of a "High Noon" scenario in the square. Yet another described a soldier, seemingly older than most, who hid behind a water pump with his rifle cradled in the crook of his arm. From there, he calmly picked off Germans as they ventured into the square. We imagined him as an old country boy who hunted back home.
It's these personal stories that brought the Normandy Invasion to life for me. The people of Normandy have neither forgotten their WWII ordeal nor the debt they owe to the many who fought to free them. On this Memorial Day, let us all "remember, reflect and honor those who have given their all" in service to our country throughout the years.