Today is a holiday in both France and the United States. In France, we’re enjoying the last long weekend of May while in the USA, millions are celebrating the start of summer and, more importantly, commemorating Memorial Day. Memorial Day honors all those servicemen and women who gave their lives for their country in the American Armed Services. While the United States has military cemeteries worldwide, the most famous is arguably the Normandy American Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer. (I am not including national cemeteries such as Arlington in that last statement.) While not the US’ only overseas military cemetery, the Normandy Cemetery is the only one located on the battlefield where those it honors fell. The cemetery is at Omaha Beach and is synonymous with D-Day, the invasion of Nazi Europe and WWII.
Following the war, France donated the land comprising the cemetery to the United States. Today the cemetery is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. 9,387 men and women, the majority of whom died in the Normandy landings and campaign are buried here. We often hear talk of people forgetting the past and forgetting their history. Yesterday, both French and American people came together to prove that such comments are generalizations and overshadow a more complex reality. No one who visited the cemetery yesterday could claim that the French (or the Americans) have forgotten anything!
The Normandy American cemetery held a Memorial Day ceremony yesterday in conjunction with the American Overseas Memorial Day Association, one of many such ceremonies being celebrated in France this weekend. Both French and American troops participated, French and American organizations were present, military and civilian dignitaries from both countries spoke and I could go on. The ceremony took place at the cemeteries’ memorial. The speakers were framed by the semicircular memorial and its bronze statue entitled “Spirit of American Youth;” in front of them–the reflecting pool and the graves gave added weight to their words.
US Major General A. Piggee gave one of the three addresses. As he talked about the fallen, one of his comments in particular caught my attention–the average age of those buried at the cemetery is 24. While it’s tempting to comment on such wasted life, one of the points all the speakers made was that their lives weren’t wasted but sacrificed as part of a larger struggle. The Mayor of Colleville-sur-Mer spoke of the legacy of the American soldiers and French resistants who gave their lives for liberty and the links that continue to bind France and the USA. This theme of friendship was also echoed by US Consul Robert Tate and I hope it is one which everyone who attended the ceremony took with them. Following the closing prayer, those present laid wreathes in honor of the fallen. I was just as touched by the American and French flags placed neatly in front of each grave and even more so by the flowers left on individual graves by Les Fleurs de la Mémoire. Les Fleurs is a French association dedicated to adopting, visiting and leaving flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers at the Normandy and Brittany American cemeteries. No one here has forgotten.
If you are visiting Normandy, the cemetery is open to the public year round and is only closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day. A large free parking lot accommodates both cars and buses and excellent bathroom facilities are located near the parking lot. A modern visitor’s center helps to put faces to the fallen. The Visitor’s Center is free. To enter, you need to go through security screening (your bags are scanned, you must walk through a medical detector and show ID). The main exhibit is downstairs. The entrance or upper level has an information desk where staff can help you with your visit–for example, if you have a family member buried here, they can help you find the exact grave site. Faced with lines of graves, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tombs. The visitor’s center humanizes the white crosses and Stars of David. Exhibits bring to life the stories of some of the men buried here. Interviews with the families of some of the men buried here, pictures, letters and personal stories put faces to the men and women who rest here. The Visitor’s Center made our visit a more moving one and brought the war down to a personal level. Never forget the fallen.