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15 May 2016

Today was one of those days where the truths of what you have learned and the magnitude of what really happened, come together at just the right moment.

Today, we spent the day at the Normandy beaches. In all honesty, this is the reason why we came to the north of France.

As many of you know, my grandfather, Ferdinand R Zelko, was in the 101st Airborne. He was here at the beaches of Normandy. And I am here today because of him.

This was my first time at Normandy, but Jer had been here almost 10 years ago while in France with the basketball team. He had seen some of the sights that we ended up going to but not all. Per Rick (Steve’s France) and Jer’s memory, we started the day in Arromanches and worked our way to Utah beach hitting many places in between.

Arromaches

At Arromanches, we got to the town around 9:30 (it was suppose to be 9, but I’ll save that story as to why we were late for another less-serious post). We got there well before the first tour bus of river cruisers or middle school trips. We had the place to ourselves. We went to the Musee du Debarquement. They had a great video (in English) that talked about how the Allies literally made their own port here, and I mean built it. Like from scratch in 15 days, under enemy fire. That is just crazy! Basically, the Allies couldn’t secure a port large enough to start the invasion due to the German defenses being so strong at crucial port towns. So they had some really smart engineers design and build one in England before the invasion began. The trick was it had to be able to put together piece by piece. With the start of D-Day, they had old ships basically steam across from England and have controled explosions to sink them onto the ocean floor as a base. They were lined up stern to bow to create a long line to start the breakwater. Then, all over England (prior to D-Day) with the war effort they built these giant concrete floating cinder block looking contraptions to then (motor across the English channel) place (well more like sink) onto the tops of the sunken ships to create the full breakwater. Insane! Also, as part of the war effort they built a floating road that would move with the tide in order to get everything from where the ships would dock onto shore itself. All in all, they built a harbor far enough out to move millions of people and millions of tons of supplies for the European campaign. However, there were hiccups along the way. The weather has always been terrible in the North of France (there are some serious cliffs) and the Allies knew that the weather, not necessarily the Germans, would be a big obstacle of getting this harbor set up. During the construction, there was  a viscous storm and extreme gales (one of the largest storms in years). Some of the harbor was damaged, but most withstood the damaging storm. Those engineers knew what they were doing! Today, as we sit on the sea wall looking out into the ocean, we can see remnants of the breakwaters that were built as a reminder of the infrastructure that was built. An infrastructure that was only supposed to last a few months at most as they took the larger ports from German rule. (Also, you can totally judge me, I had no idea about this, fail for middle school history).

Panorama of the man-made harbor
Remnants of the floating road

Longues-sur Mer

We then headed over to Longues-sur Mer batteries. These are the just some of the German batteries (supposedly the best most intact ones to date) that were built to house their guns, ammo and men along what was known as the Atlantic Wall. Basically the Germans decided in 1942 to create the Atlantic Wall which stretched from Norway to then French-Spanish border which was meant to fortify the Atlantic coast from any Allied invasions (it obviously failed). We spent time looking through old batteries, some still intact, others not so much. Just think of how loud it would have been inside 3 feet of concrete with this monstrous gun firing. We also walked through some underground bunkers and other concrete fortresses that were used for spotting. It is an engineering feat, for sure.

One of 4 still intact here 
Looking back at all 4 from the forward spotting post
Walking down into one of the ammunition bunkers

American Cemetery

After the batteries, we went to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. There are 2 parts to the cemetery, one is the cemetery the other is a museum. The museum is free and worth any waits there may happen to be getting through security. We were lucky, the weather was a little chilly but not as overcast, so like yesterday, I think it was not as busy because it wasn’t a perfect day. We went through security and into the museum. Any words we wrote would not do this justice so guess everyone will just have to start planning their trips now! In all honesty, we spent at least an hour reading all the plaques, as well as looking through the different exhibits, and we could have spent more time.

We then headed out to the cemetery. I do not have words to describe looking out and seeing over 9,000 markers for those who call this cemetery their final resting place. Jer and I walked around for a bit and notice people counting out the markers to find lost love ones to tell the story of D-Day and describe the ultimate sacrifice to their kids. It was hard to hold back tears.

Infinity pool at the museum made to represent the invasion
Cemetery
Looking out from the monument to the cemetery

Omaha Beach

We then headed down to Omaha beach for a quick stop (the American Cemetery and Museum is up on the cliffs above and a little way East of the actual beach). If you turn around from the beach, you can see the uphill battle that was fought once the soldiers came ashore.

Omaha Beach monument

Utah Beach

We then took the drive over to Utah Beach. This is where Ferdy was. We parked and headed to the Musee du debarquement – Utah Beach. This was by far my favorite museum. Again, there was a short movie (in English) to start. We then spent (I think at least an hour) going through the exhibits. The depth of the information was unbelievable. It went through each unit and had personal items, that were donated or on loan to add to the story. This is a can’t miss.  After the museum, we walked to the top of the sea wall to take a look out over the beaches. It’s hard to imagine being on a boat, the door opening, your commander yelling ‘GO, GO’ with 75-100 pounds of stuff on your back, wadding through the water to the beach, through the debris and trying to get the the safety of the sea wall, which was hundreds of yards away all while taking on enemy fire.

One of the exhibits within the Utah Beach museum
Looking out over Utah Beach
Utah Beach monument

St Mere Eglise

We then headed to St Mere Eglise, which is one of the many towns inland from Utah beach. This is one of the most famous towns where a lot of paratroopers accidentally landed. (As history tells us, and Band of Brothers, the Airborne landed all over the place). There was actually a paratrooper that got stuck on the town church spire and hung there for hours until he could get lose. This is also the home of the Airborne Museum. For a small fee, we went through and saw a Waco Glider. A glider could only be used once, it was flown like a small plane but no real engine. They were towed behind the typical jump planes, but because of the lack of engine they could come in behind enemy lines without making the noise of a typical plane. These gliders could hold either multiple paratroopers who could land (unfortunately crashes upon landing were just as common) behind enemy lines without having to jump, or they could also hold supplies and vehicles that normally were luxuries the airborne would not get behind enemy lines. This was the quite way to get people in, and also very dangerous. We again walked through a ton of personal effects found through out the area and donated. They also had an exhibit which was designed to give you a first hand look at what it would have been like inside a plane as the paratroopers flew into battle and got ready to jump over an active war zone.

Waco Glider
View from inside the glider
What the 75-100 pounds of equipment worn by a Paratrooper comprised of
Church in St Mere Eglise

Pointe du Hoc

At this point, it was close to 18:00 and knew that no other museums would be open, but the grounds at Ponte du Hoc would be (thanks to Rick). So we back tracked to Pointe du Hoc. Pointe du Hoc was another area where there were massive German guns that were going to cause major damage on the landings on the beaches, if they were not taken out. Essentially they were directly in between the two American landing beaches at Utah and Omaha. The German positions were bombed heavily (see the craters in the pictures below). But with the batteries being built with tens of feet of concrete, some of the guns survived. So the Army Rangers had devised a way to scale the cliffs up to the point to over take these German batteries. Yes, scale the cliff. So these guys in their boats (in not calm seas), came up to the side of the cliff and with special gear (ropes, ladders, and grappling hooks), started climbing up. Holy shit. Of the Ranger unit that was involved, 225 men started and only 96 were able to continue on a few days after D-Day. There are plaques all over the park so we were able to learn as we went. The last set of plaques talked about those who were lost. Highlighting a few individuals. On one of those plaques, Jer and I got a surprise. There was a young man, Walter Geldon, who was a 23 year old steel worker from Bethlehem, PA. I kid you not. This is where we ended our tour of Normandy, with a reminder of home.

Talk about getting chills.

Cliffs of Pointe du Hoc
Outer most point of the Cliffs
Easy to see why they had no choice but to scale the cliffs to get to these batteries
Looking out over the monument and seeing the bomb craters
A little reminder of home

-Kasey
Step Count: 18,727, 11.34km

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