We sailed into La Havre, France, Saturday morning. Shirley and I had to choose between two things we could do: there was a crew shuttle to Paris or we could hire a taxi and do a tour of our own. Since we had spent four days in Paris last year we decided to do the latter.
So we left the ship and walked out to the taxi tour station and made our choice — and what a great choice it was. We talked to one of the taxi drivers and agreed on a fee for our tour. He didn’t speak much English and of course we were limited to “Merci” and “Oui.” But it was a new taxi and the driver was very friendly and appeared honest, so away we went.
Where were we going? Take a trip back to 1952. My Uncle Don Michaelsen called up and asked if I wanted to go on a little squirrel hunting trip. Don was my mother’s brother and though he was about 15 years older than me, we were good friends and often went on overnight fishing trips or like in this case, a hunting trip. He came over to our house and we headed down into our woods where a lot of squirrels and rabbits lived. We had hunted for a couple of hours and took a break to eat a couple of sandwiches we had brought with us.
Don had been in World War II and was wounded by an artillery shell. He hardly ever talked about the war and no one ever really questioned him about it. But, this day we talked about sighting in a rifle and he talked about how he really learned to shoot when he was in the army. As we talked I asked about his entry into battle and for some reason he started talking about D-Day and how he had gone ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day + 1. As he told me about that day he became very emotional as he reiterated how terrible it had been. I won’t go into the gory details here, but it was terrible. If you have seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the opening scenes in that movie portrayed what he told me. He cried as he talked and for a young teen it was a very special moment that he shared with me.
You know where this is leading don’t you? Yep, we had our taxi driver head to the Normandy beaches. I really got excited as we neared the beaches and saw the signs guiding us in. Then when we had parked and Shirley and I headed down to the beach area the emotion flooded over both of us. Below was our first look at Omaha Beach where my uncle had come ashore 65 years ago. And now I could see exactly where he had waded ashore through all the blood on that fateful day. Take a look and remember back to June 6th, 1944.
We stood on the observation platform and looked at the smooth water washing in on the beach and tried to picture what it must have been like on those days and nights of the invasion. After a while we decided to walk down to the beach. It was a cool day with no wind so the walk down was very nice. We were very quiet as we walked, each of us thinking our own thoughts. Then we walked out onto the sand and down to the waters edge and both of us teared up. I couldn’t help but think back to that day in 1952 when my uncle told me about the horror of wading ashore and now here I was, standing on that beach and maybe even right where he had walked out of the water. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
We stayed on the beach for quite a while and then made a slow climb up the hill where the Germans had been dug in. It was a long, tough climb for us and it was hard to imagine what it would have been like with bullets tearing up everything around you. You really can’t even come close to knowing the panic and fear those young men felt. When we reached the top we knew we wanted to see the Memorial and Cemetery.
As we passed from behind some trees, this is the first sight of the cemetery. It was overwhelming. It is much like Arlington, but this is even more sobering as you realize that all of these young men’s crosses are here in the area where they died.
After we finished looking around the cemetery we headed over to look at some of the gun emplacements the Germans had on top of the hill above the beaches. It was amazing to look at these large cement bunkers and how they had been arranged to cover off-shore and the beaches. We walked by them, climbed on them and went inside them. The construction was amazing with the concrete and rebar. As you looked toward the beach you could just imagine the guns firing down on our soldiers trying to climb the hill. It made it very real.
We left the Normandy beaches with many thoughts racing through our heads. It is one thing to read about something like D-Day but when you are there and see it in real life it brings it home in a big way. We will never forget this visit to the beaches and we will never forget the sacrifices that were made back in 1944. What an amazing thing it was for us to stand on Omaha Beach.
As our French Taxi driver said in his broken English, “America made us free!”
Arky and Shirley are future cruise consultants aboard Eurodam.