NORMANDY, France, June 2, 2014 — Four simple words are all it takes to accurately describe the deep appreciation the citizens of Normandy, France have for the D-Day events that led to the end of World War II. The words are powerful. Honest. Sincere. And, most of all, indelible in the hearts and souls of those who were freed from the clutches of tyranny 70 years ago:
“We have not forgotten.”
These words represent an ancestral commitment by the people of Normandy that they will never allow the memory of their liberation to diminish. That appreciation is readily visible as busload after busload of French school children arrive at one site after another along the 50-mile stretch of coastline where the invasion began on June 6, 1944.
They come not because this is a special anniversary however. No, this is a daily occurrence throughout the year. Any year. Every year. Because it is an educational requirement for French students to visit the sites that altered history and changed the world forever.
With no fewer than 17 heads of state, including Barack Obama, scheduled to be present for the ceremonies, all main access roads will have security checkpoints. Guides who normally begin routine activities at seven am will be forced to rise as early as three in the morning. Some will have as many a five different identification badges. Attendees have been told to arrive no less than two hours before the start of the ceremonies in order to ensure their access.
Most of the events will take place at the Oustreham section of Normandy which is the easternmost area of the five landing beaches of the D-Day assault. Oustreham is the location of Sword Beach where British soldiers landed before moving on to the River Orne to capture Pegasus Bridge. To the west, a special ceremony will be held at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach which was the site of the largest number of casualties on D-Day.
Omaha and Utah Beaches were the American landing sites. They are the two westernmost invasion beaches with the 100-foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc situated roughly in between. It was at Pointe du Hoc where the Rangers scaled the cliffs with grappling hooks and rope ladders as the Germans fired their weapons directly from above.
Advance teams of Secret Service have been on site at Omaha for more than a week, standing out like sore thumbs in their dark suits amid thousands of casually attired visitors. Though access to Normandy is easy with excellent four-lane highways from Paris, the areas surrounding the landing beaches themselves are still very much as they were in 1944. Narrow two-lane roads meander among hedgerows which protect rolling pastures and quaint stone houses that come right to the edge of the road. Tranquil rivers and streams flow through forests and meadows where Normandy’s unique breed of cows graze peacefully on the lush green grass.
Seemingly every village along the route has a museum or a memorial or two or three to commemorate individuals or groups who did something special to preserve the freedoms the French hold so dear. Even in normal times, traveling the back roads and lanes of the Normandy countryside has a slower pace. It is all part of the magic. It represents much of the charm, but it is definitely not a place to be rushed. Rather it is a place to be savored. A place to absorb through the pores and soak it all in.
For many, perhaps this new, more peaceful modern “invasion,” would be an inconvenience, but not in Normandy. The citizens embrace the hassles with open arms. They want the world to see what they have known for seven decades, that this is the place where tyranny stopped. The place they can thankfully still call home.
When a visitor asked a guide in Bayeux who was General Eisenhower, he replied to her answer, “Wow, you must really be old.” To which the guide responded, “Yes, thank God I am old enough to remember so that you cannot forget.”
Beautiful, serene and placid as they are, the beaches of Normandy are hallowed ground. They are not, and will not be, desecrated by sun worshippers and brightly colored umbrellas. They are, as they should be, a tribute to those who gallantly gave their lives so the rest of the world could live in freedom.
Perhaps the best summation came from a resident of Normandy who still remembers the day the skies were dark with planes and paratroopers and the seas were filled with ships and the beaches were lined with the bodies of dead soldiers. “You have it wrong, monsieur,” she said. “D-Day was NOT an invasion. D-Day was a liberation!” That is all that needs to be said. That and four other words, “We have not forgotten.”
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club(www.MagellanTravelClub.com). Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod