Le quatorze juillet, or the 14th of July. French Independence Day or, as we Americans call it, Bastille Day. Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, after being blasted out of their beds by celebratory cannon fire, spent their Bastille Day in 1922 on a remote hillside near St. Valery-en-Caux waiting for the big gun to stop firing. In the evening, they attended a fete along the seaside promenade, where they danced with the locals into the wee hours. It proved to be one of their favorite memories from their summer abroad – their own “Summer of Independence”.
Ninety-five years later, there was no cannon fire to roust me from my sleep, and there didn’t seem to be any activity in St. Valery to suggest that there was to be a party on the promenade. So I felt perfectly fine about stepping out of the girls’ footsteps, leaving St. Valery to celebrate without me, and spending my July 14th with the American heroes who gave their lives so that French independence could still be celebrated today. Offering a brief apology to Cornelia and Emily for pulling them away from their fun, I invited them to come with me, even though where I was going didn’t exist during their travels, or even when they penned the book in 1942.
I would be taking the girls with me to June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the beaches of the Normandy invasion.
My first stop: the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. I began my visit with a tour of the museum, which was a moving experience from start to finish, yet there is one thing which stands out in my memory above anything else: In a display case captioned, “What They Carried With Them”, along with personal items and some tins of rations, there were two copies of Armed Services Editions of books.
In an earlier post, I shared the poignant story of the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized copies of classics and popular books which were distributed to American troops, and how they contributed greatly to the morale of the soldiers, offering them an escape from the war. Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was one of the books selected to be sent to the troops and, remarkably, would end up figuring in a story from D-Day. Recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion, the anecdote involves his return to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, where he came across a fallen soldier, arm outstretched, and how just a few feet from the soldier’s hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. That tiny footnote in history is the main reason I wanted Cornelia and Emily with me for this part of my journey.
Spotting the two ASEs in the display case, I didn’t register what the books’ titles were. Just them being there meant so much to me – they certainly didn’t have to be copies of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Those books had been important to a couple of the young men who crossed the English Channel that day. I just prayed that the books’ owners weren’t beneath any of those headstones outside, but I feared that it was what the books’ presence signified.
Leaving the museum, I found outside that the day couldn’t have been more beautiful – sunshine with a light breeze and an occasional puff of a white cloud drifting across the sky. But even its loveliness couldn’t ward off the heart-wrenching sadness of the cemetery filled with American soldiers.
Though I had steeled myself and braced for the hit, I wasn’t prepared for the scope of what I was seeing, and I felt as if my breath had been knocked out of my body.
Containing the graves of over 9,000 soldiers, the cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Its gently curving hillside slopes so that you can’t see an end to the headstones which mark the resting places of the soldiers – the crosses and Stars of David seem to go on forever. A painful forever.
It is worth noting that the grounds of the cemetery are captivatingly beautiful, and immaculate. A place worthy of honoring these greatest of heroes. For a time, I walked in and out of the rows upon rows of grave markers, stopping occasionally to read them. There were boys from every state. Some had been killed that very first day, June 6, 1944, while others had died days or weeks later from their injuries.
I felt compelled to walk the perimeter of the entire cemetery, around each of the four corners, in order to pay at least a passing visit to every grave. In the far corner, away from any nearby visitors, I cried for the young men who had died and then remained so far from home. I cried for their lost potential, and for the pain their families had to bear.
I thanked them for what they had done. They had fought for the most noble cause in human history. They stood up against the greatest, most far-reaching evil the world had ever seen, and they saved us. I told them I was so sorry they had to do it. And I said a prayer and a blessing for them to rest in peace.
And then I remembered the soldier who had died on Omaha Beach with the copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay next to his hand. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I suddenly understood that he was somewhere in the cemetery, under one of the headstones. Now my visit had become personal, about one young man in particular who had lost his life on June 6, 1944. I wished that I could have known which headstone was his, and who that young man was. But, really, he was all of them.
The day was slipping away, and there was still Omaha Beach to visit. I only wished that I had allowed more time, and could have visited all of the beaches the American, British and Canadian soldiers took that day, and seen everything there was to see in this area teeming with history. I would just have to come back again. I was glad to have that on my to-do list.
It was a short drive from the cemetery to the beach, and soon I was making the turn onto the “Rue de la 1st Division”. When I arrived, there were still loads of people out enjoying a day at the seaside, in the water and relaxing on the beach. I parked at the top of a hill near the memorial to the 1st Division, and then walked down to the obelisk honoring those heroes. Stopping there, I said a prayer of thanks to those young men who truly, literally, stared into the guns, unflinching and unrelenting. Near their memorial stand remains of Nazi bunkers, where German soldiers mowed down those Americans as they tried, and eventually managed, to advance. Seeing those bunkers got my blood up, and I spit on one of them on my way down the hill to the beach.
As I took my last steps down the slope and started towards the water, I met up with a golden retriever who was wandering around some old bit of bunker sticking out of the sand. I stopped and petted the sweet fellow, then walked on for a while down the beach, finally stopping to wade into a shallow pool made by the low tide.
Looking out at the Channel, it didn’t take much effort to see the landing crafts, and the soldiers coming towards shore. I could feel them around me, running past me in the sand, and almost hear their voices and the noise of the guns, almost smell the smoke. They are still there. Those brave young men invested too much of their souls into this place to just dissolve into the past. I asked myself, what must the soldiers think of all these people here now, who are so carefree and unaware of their enduring presence on this sacred ground?
But then it occurred to me that perhaps – just maybe – this is the best way to heal the wounds of the past. We move forward in joy, in peace, and in hope, filling the beaches of D-Day with laughter again. Picnics, flying kites, playing in the water, soaking up the sunshine. Hopefully it brings those soldiers some comfort. It is what they would have wanted for themselves and their families. Perhaps in its way, it is a tribute to the soldiers’ sacrifice.
After a while, I turned and looked back across the beach to the hillside, deliberately choosing to keep myself in the present moment. I couldn’t bring myself to envision the young men attempting to cross the beach, some of them losing their lives, with the smoke and gunfire all around.
That young man with the copy of Cornelia’s and Emily’s book had fallen somewhere here in the sand where I now stood.
Fighting to remain in July 14, 2017, I focused on the families enjoying the beach, happy and relaxed, basking in the beautiful day. And I watched delightedly as my golden retriever buddy made the rounds, saying hello to everyone he encountered.
Before I left, I wrote “Thank you” in the sand. I wanted to make sure that the soldiers knew, even by my one little gesture, that they were remembered. And with that, I put on my shoes, made my way back along the beach and walked up to the memorial, taking the same hill those brave young men had taken. It was my very humble way of honoring their courageous efforts and their fight.
Though my experience on this day was a world apart from Cornelia’s and Emily’s July 14th, my Bastille Day had proved to be one of my favorite memories from the entire journey. Just like their Bastille Day had been for the girls. Funny how it all comes around to that marvelous, strange synergy.
And I was glad I had asked Cornelia and Emily to come along with me. Though their travels and their book pre-date this watershed moment in history, they are tied to this place by the soldiers who read, and were hopefully cheered by, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Still, on this day, my focus wasn’t on the girls or their book, and I didn’t follow in their footsteps.
Instead, I walked in the footsteps of heroes.
Above: The grave of a “A Comrade in Arms known but to God”.
Top Row: Along with their cigarettes and rations, soldiers carried ASEs to D-Day; fresh flowers of remembrance for a soldier on the seventy-third anniversary of his death.
Bottom Row: A bright and beautiful boy enjoying the day; looking across what must’ve seemed like miles of open terrain.
The title for this post comes from photographer Seth Taras’ iconic ad campaign for The History Channel, “Know Where You Stand” (below is one of his images from Omaha Beach, otherwise known as Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer)