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“Why do you think all of the graves face away from the front of the cemetery?” asked our guide at the American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
My grandfather, uncle, and dad all looked at me. They already knew the answer. I was stumped.
“All of the graves face toward home.”
I walked upon the hallowed ground at the cemetery at Omaha Beach, where there are 9,387 American crosses and Stars of David where men and four women are buried thousands of miles from their loved ones, their markers looking across the Atlantic Ocean toward home. The Garden of the Missing contains the remains of 1,557 unknown soldiers. It brought me to tears.
I stood in Europe with three of the most important men in my life, looking at soldiers’ graves who sacrificed everything for their country. They would never reach the age of my grandfather, or even my father, or for some, even my age.
In January, I was in Orange County, California, on winter break from my senior year at Wellesley College near Boston. Just before leaving for school, my father asked me if I wanted to join him, my grandpa, and my uncle in late spring on their annual trip to Normandy, and Bastogne, Belgium — two of the most important battlefields of World War II.
My grandfather, Lewis Turchi, 81, was 11 years old on D-Day. Like a lot of boys, he wished he was old enough to serve his country. After graduating from high school in 1950, he enlisted in the Navy and served during the Korean War on the USS George Clymer.
But it was World War II that fascinated my grandfather. He passed that passion on to my dad, Jeff, 55, and my uncle, Scott, 50.
As an American Studies major and World War II-era cultural aficionado, now 22, I guess I had proved to them I was ready to appreciate the sites they had already experienced three times. I immediately said yes and started my homework for the trip. I learned there are 76,300 U.S. troops buried in World War II cemeteries across Europe, all maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
We flew overnight from Los Angeles to Paris. This was my first trip to Europe, but the Eiffel Tower, grand cafés, and art museums would have to wait for the future. We had a train to catch to meet with our tour, which would begin the next day. Just a few hours after landing, we were on our way by rail to the little town of Bayeux, a few miles from the Normandy coast in northwest France.
Our home for the first five days was a four-star hotel called the Villa Lara. The owner greeted us at the curb, kissed us on both cheeks, and brought us drinks before dinner. Though my fellow “Band of Turchis,” as my grandpa calls us, had only stayed here once before, we were welcomed as old friends.
Many Americans assume the French dislike us. Not true, at least not here. In the Norman countryside Americans are seen as the saviors of France — or at least liberators in its darkest hour.
The American-led Allied armies that landed June 6, 1944, drove the Germans out of the towns after four years of occupation. On nearly every street corner, there is some type of monument as a reminder of an act of courage by an American soldier. And we had not even been on the invasion beaches yet.
There were five landing beaches on D-Day, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. My grandpa, dad and uncle had been to Omaha and Utah, which were attacked by the Americans, as well as Juno, which was captured largely by Canadian forces.
We started at Omaha Beach. It was an eye-opening experience.
The sheer number and size of concrete German bunkers above the beachheads made me question how the Americans landing below could have survived, much less won the battle. Boys younger than me scaled the cliffs near Pointe du Hoc, ran across the beach during an extremely low tide at Omaha Beach, and had to figure out how to adjust after being dropped at the wrong location at Utah.
It is one thing to appreciate history through books and movies, but standing in my own shoes on the sand, the forest, the rocks, and the fields where the entire world changed almost 70 years ago is inexplicable.
My grandfather, had he been born six or seven years earlier, could easily have been here. The graveyards were full of men whose birthdays were just a few years beyond his.
I think I understand why my grandpa, my dad, and uncle wanted me to come on the trip. They were passing this history down to a new generation — one that sometimes forgets that the actions of the past ensured the freedom of the world we live in.
Bullet-scarred bunkers dot the coastline, remnants of the supposedly invincible “Atlantic Wall” the Nazis built from Calais to Brittany.
From Normandy, we followed the path of the American troops inland. I saw some of the landing sites of the 101st Airborne Division. I saw bomb craters 25 feet deep that remain at Pointe du Hoc.
At St. Mere-Eglise, we visited the church where a parachute still hangs from the bell tower in memory of Pvt. John Steele, who survived getting hooked on the top of the church by playing dead. I saw foxholes in the Bois Jacques Forest where members of the airborne dug in for months in the freezing winter. I saw lingering blood stains on the pews in a church used as a hospital at Angoville-au-Plain.
I saw the graveyards where row after row of white crosses and other markers showed thousands of young Americans had given their lives fighting.
At the cemeteries, I did not have a relative’s gravestone to look for. I had no real personal connection to D-Day. But perhaps I am here because my grandfather’s marker is not there. In any case, I have new respect, appreciation, and thankfulness for those who served and who died.
If you go:
GETTING TO NORMANDY: The D-Day beaches can be visited as a day trip from Paris. Trains regularly leave Gare St. Lazare for Caen, the largest city in the region and home to the D-Day-oriented Le Memorial de Caen museum. The trip takes about two hours. From Caen, there is regular train service to Bayeux, a trip of less than 20 minutes. Prices start at $56 each way. For more information, visit raileurope.com or call 800-622-8600. For information on rail passes, which can be used in France, visit eurrail.com.