In 2010, I had the honor of visiting Normandy, France. I had always wanted to visit there on the anniversary of D Day and see the WWII sites and especially, the beaches of D Day.
I arrived on July 4th, (the next best date) on an overnight ferry from England, which made it extra special. I walked to the Peace Museum and got the last seat on an eight person guided tour of the beaches (they are very spread out and not very accessible without a car).
It was such a humbling experience to visit those beaches and see what the men faced. My limited imagination was helped by having watched The Longest Day in preparation of my visit. It was sobering indeed.
My visit to Normandy was very special for a number of other reasons as well. I certainly have never felt as proud to be an American when in a foreign country as I was there in Normandy, France. I was surprised by that, given the reputation the French have for not liking Americans (sorry my French friends!).
Part of my guided tour included a visit to the American Cemetery right above one of the beaches. We were greeted by this lovely French couple who had a large basket of roses. They were giving them to Americans along with a small paper identifying an American serviceman’s grave for us to lay a rose at their grave in honor of Fourth of July. They actually had tears in their eyes as they thanked me for the sacrifice of my country to help liberate France decades ago. If you can read the man’s t-shirt, it says, ""Thank You America – France Will Never Forget” Whew, who had tears in their eyes after talking with them!
Another special encounter I had was while in Caen, the city nearest Normandy beaches, and was looking at a bombed shell of a church, very near the Abbeye aux Hommes, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I was standing in the circle you see in the photo below, taking photos of the church.
A woman who appeared to be in her 40s approached me, she looked like a New York business commuter – skirt and suit coat and tennis shoes! She asked if I was American and was determined to communicate with me. With her French, my Portuguese a little English and lots of hand motions, I believe I understood what she was saying. She was trying to turn my attention from the bombed church above to the “castle” below.
She told me the story of how the Allies had bombed much of the area in the beginning of liberating France but the French had marked special buildings with larges Xs on the top so they wouldn’t bomb them. The church that was bombed is only about 100 yards from the grounds of this historical Abbey where William the Conqueror’s’ remains were laid. Amazing.
But then she took my hand and shook it vigorously and said many times, “Thank you, God bless America for your help in our war, thank you!” Now this woman wasn’t even alive during the war! And yet the sense of gratitude for America seemed genuine and she wasn’t trying to sell me souvenirs! She hugged me and jog-walked away while I went on to visit the Abbey.
I met many people who expressed appreciation toward America during my visit to Normandy. I was so touched. And, as I already said, proud to be an American.
It makes me proud of our military, all of the branches and all of the troops from before WWII until today.
“Thank you for your service.”
It hardly seems enough.