The commemorations will continue for 80 days all around the stretch of coast between Cherbourg and Le Havre where the Allies landed.
Lt. j.g. John J. Spano Jr. was on a ship that delivered men and equipment to Omaha Beach. Just before 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, he traded his Navy-issue sheepskin jacket for a Girard-Perregaux watch that belonged to a soldier headed for the landing zone. My father wore that handsome gold timepiece every day. "It is still ticking," he wrote after he retired. "I hope that young officer came through the war in one piece and is also still ticking."
Time has run out for many of the American soldiers who survived the war. About 1,100 U.S. World War II veterans die every day.
My own father died two years ago at the age of 82. At the end of his life, his war experiences figured large in his thoughts, especially his participation in D-day, the greatest amphibious attack ever mounted. As a privileged baby boomer, I never completely understood what my father's war experiences meant to him.
Figuring that out was part of my mission in Normandy, where I walked the beaches, stood at commemorative markers in apple orchards, got lost among hedgerow-bordered Norman lanes where American parachutists landed (and also got lost), and took my bearings from the spires of medieval churches manned by German gunners in 1944.
There are hundreds of World War II sites in the area, from the majestic Normandy American cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer to endearing mom-and-pop museums with all manner of bric-a-brac from the war haphazardly displayed. In my three days here, I concentrated on sites devoted to America's big chunk of the D-day action -- and those connected to my father.
A history of war
I took the train from Paris northwest to Caen, where I rented a car and quickly saw why the city will never forget the war. It was virtually razed by British bombers in a 65-day effort to drive the Germans out. By the entrance to the train station, there's a monument to railway workers killed during the war; the main street is Avenue June 6; and the buildings downtown are mostly postwar vintage, except for the castle built by William the Conqueror and the Gothic Church of St. Pierre, surmounted by a 234-foot spire that replaced the one destroyed in shelling during the summer of '44.
A good way to try to fathom it all is to make a first stop at the Caen Memorial, on the northwest side of town. It occupies a pair of modern buildings, one opened in 1988, the other unveiled in 2002, on a cliff with a garden and greensward below. The memorial's purview goes well beyond World War II. Peace is its point, realized by telling the horrible story of conflict in the 20th century, starting in 1919, at the end of the Great -- but not the last -- War.
From the main hall, displays (captioned in French, English and German) outline the chain of events that led to another, greater war. A section on "France in the Dark Years" (during the German occupation) follows, with displays on the Vichy government, Gen. Charles de Gaulle's BBC broadcasts from London that rallied the French and the invaluable espionage efforts of the Free French.
Then it's on to the war: models of U.S. subs, photos of bombed-out European cities and a 1939 letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt about the possibility of setting off a "chain reaction in a large mass of uranium."
The story continues in the new building, where visitors are reminded that man's hostility survived the Second World War. Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War are covered in pictures, film footage and text. Then there's one last ugly note from the 21st century: a mangled mass of steel beams, donated to the memorial from the World Trade Center.
The last, light-bathed section of the memorial is devoted to peace, from the nonviolence of India's Gandhi to UNICEF's efforts to help refugee children. I left thinking that in 10 years a new building will be needed to take us through terrorism and the Iraq war, if we last that long.
Visit to Bayeux
To reach the American D-day landing zones, I took the N13/E46 highway northwest from the memorial. The Norman countryside was so verdant and peaceful, I had to force myself to remember that the very highway I was traveling on roughly marked the Allies' D-day objective. (They were optimistic, as it turned out; by the end of the day, they had barely advanced beyond the beaches in many sectors.)
About 20 miles from Caen, I stopped in Bayeux to see its famed, exquisitely preserved medieval tapestry. Its 276 feet depict, frame by frame in something akin to 11th century comic book fashion, the Norman conquest of England, complete with beguiling Viking ships, ducks, castles and knights in armor embroidered on the borders.
Lunch was a delicious seafood salad at Le Pommier restaurant near the cathedral, followed by a visit to the park where, on June 14, 1944, De Gaulle spoke to the French people for the first time since the German occupation on free French soil. The town's miraculously intact old stone buildings and winding lanes suggested the weakness of German resistance in the area.