A Window into Hell

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, shrouded in fog. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The fog stayed with us all day today, as guests aboard Tauck’s ms Sapphire set out for a full-day tour to the D-Day Landing sites in France’s Normandy region.

On June 6, 1944, at six thirty in the morning, the Allies launched a major offensive along the coast of Normandy. Their goal: to capture the beach and drive the Nazis out of France. Soldiers from Great Britain, Canada and the United States – along with troops from as far away as Greece – stormed the beaches, code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah – at dawn.

We departed Tauck’s ms Sapphire early this morning…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…bound for a full-day tour of the D-Day landing sites on the Normandy coast. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

By the end of the day, the Allied forces had succeeded in capturing much of the Norman coast from the Germans. But the loss of life was tremendous. Out of 156,000 British, Canadian and American forces, over 10,000 men and women lost their lives. The exact numbers will never be known. Some soldiers were swept out to sea. Others, dragged down by gear that weighed 45 pounds, drowned in deep water or swampy marshes that had been flooded by the Germans.

When troops came ashore, they had to run along the beach, sinking into the sand under the weight of their gear, dodging fire from German troops. As far back as 1942, the Germans – under the direction of the original “Desert Fox”, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, had been fortifying the beach with bunkers, hidden anti-aircraft guns, and special weapons that could unleash 1,200 rounds per minute on anything – and anyone – in their path.

The beaches of Normandy, near Arromanches, France. A steel “spud” pier section, installed by the Allies and left on the beach, is in the background. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Located on Gold Beach, troops had to construct special docks and mooring anchorages in order to successfully secure the beach. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Looking back towards Arromanches from Gold Beach. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

“Gold” Beach in better times, before World War II. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Many guests onboard Tauck’s Rendezvous on the Seine river cruise have come here for this day. To see the beaches and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. You’ve probably seen it before, too. It features prominently in the opening and closing scenes of the 1998 movie, Saving Private Ryan, which features a tough-to-watch 30-minute opening sequence that details the invasion of Normandy on Omaha beach.

Nine thousand three-hundred and eighty-seven Americans are buried here. Three hundred and seven of those are unknown burials. One hundred and forty-nine are marked by the Star of David. Nine thousand two hundred and thirty-eight are marked by Latin crosses.

I’m spelling those out in full because numbers alone cannot do the human cost justice. In the fog, walking alone, the crosses keep emerging from the mist. Row, after row, after row. I find myself in a sea of white crosses, their end obscured in all directions by the mist. Something catches in my throat. You’re not human if something doesn’t at a place like this.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

A total of 9,387 Americans are buried here. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Tauck provides every guest with a white rose, or a stone, to place at a headstone if they so wish. I am Canadian, not American, but that doesn’t matter here. Everyone was fighting for the same thing. These Americans fought for my freedom, just as the Canadians and the British fought for American freedom. And, to a large degree, they all fought for the freedom and liberation of France.

I placed my rose at the grave of a man named Aaron Tonkin, from West Virginia. He died on June 9, 1944 – three days after D-Day. I don’t know him, or his family. I feel like, because of his name, we probably would have had a beer and laughed about the similarity.

I placed my rose at the grave of a man named Aaron Tonkin. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Others can only be remembered anonymously. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Tonkin is buried in a plot far removed from the entrance to the Cemetery. It is nice, quiet and peaceful – particularly in the stillness of the fog. On my walk back to the entrance, though, the names become overwhelming. Their names blur together with their dates of death and their army regiments and their hometowns that will never see them again.

Among the crosses, I pass another guest from the ship. His eyes are hidden behind mirrored aviator sunglasses, but his voice breaks when he speaks.

“What was the point of all of this?” He gestures to the graves. “All of this…it’s senseless.”

He pauses, then turns away, disappearing into the fog, until I’m alone among the crosses and the horrors of the past.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report from onboard Tauck’s ms Sapphire continues tomorrow as we explore Caudebec-en-Caux, France. Follow along with our latest cruise adventures on Twitter: @deckchairblog.

From Paris to Normandy with Tauck

October 9, 2017ParisArrival in Paris; check-in to Pullman Paris Tour Eiffel hotel.
October 10ParisTour of the Opera Garnier
October 11ParisTour of the Palace of Versailles; embark ms Sapphire
October 12RouenGuided tour of Rouen; evening chateau reception, dinner and music
October 13Caudebec-en-CauxVisits to Etretat and Honfleur
October 14Caudebec-en-CauxD-Day history in Normandy with visits to Omaha Beach, American Cemetery & the Arromanches Museum
October 15JumiegesVisit to Jumieges Abbey ruins
October 16Les AndelysChateau Gaillard tour; cider & calvados tasting; scenic cruising
October 17VernonGiverny and Monet home visit; farewell reception
October 18ParisDisembark ms Sapphire

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