DAY 4: Normandy

Utah Beach

This day was the first day of our Battlebus tour. We were picked up at 8:30am by Geert our battlefield guide and proceeded to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Geert is a great guy. He’s a native of Belgium who spoke perfect english and he really knew his WWII history well. In Sainte-Mere-Eglise we learned about John Steele who hung on a church steeple by his parachute for several hours before being captured by the Germans. And we saw some remaining evidence of the fight between Germans and American Airborne troops for control of the town.

After leaving Saite-Mere-Eglise we stopped by Brecourt Manor near Utah Beach to see the field where the men of Easy Company, portrayed in the HBO series Band of Brothers, took out German gun positions that were firing on troops at Utah. The owner of the farm still has the German gun supports lying nearby outside his home. The funny thing was, at one time he had given the gun supports to a museum but they just left them in a basement somewhere, so he took them back. After the Band of Brothers series came out, the museum wanted them back but he said no.

We then continued on to Utah Beach. While there we ran into a British D-Day veteran named David Carter who landed at Juno Beach. He came to Normandy with his son who was documenting his father’s 60-year return on video. We had a nice chat with them and found out that they now live in Canada.

We then had a look inside the war museum that sits right on Utah Beach. There, Dad and Dee received certificates and commemorative medallions from museum employees. It was a really cool museum that had a panoramic view of Utah through its many windows.

After having a look around we went over to the Le Rooseveltrestaurant for lunch. The restaurant was decorated with lots of 1940’s memorabilia that gave it a unique atmosphere. There we met Franck, the owner of the restaurant. After shaking hands, he handed Dad and Dee each a sharpie and had them sign their names on the front of his bar. There were many other signatures of veterans that went across the bar and on the walls.

Before sitting down to eat, Geert then gave us a private tour of the bunker behind the restaurant. It was made up to look like a radio communications base, much like it had been in the days after the invasion. The signatures of soldiers that were there in 1944 can still be seen on the walls.

After going back inside and sitting down, Franck came over and got Dad & Dee to stand with him in the center of the restaurant. He then made a speech in French to all the French patrons that were having lunch there. I don’t know exactly what he said but he told them about Dad & Dee and what they had done during the war. When he was done speaking the whole restaurant erupted with applause. That was a special moment and I have to admit I had a few tears well up in my eyes; I was very proud of my dad and uncle. Later, several French people approached them for photos and autographs. Before we left, Franck gave Dad & Dee each some souvenir WWII bullets that had been found in the area. He also had them a sign a 1944 calendar that he had hanging on the wall. It was a great time and the food was good too.

Pointe du Hoc

Our next stop on that day was Pointe du Hoc. You can’t help but say “Wow!” when you see the bomb-scarred landscape and damaged German gun bunkers that still remain here. This was my second visit to this area and the first for everyone else; I could tell that the whole scene made an impression on them. This was where Army Rangers boldly scaled the 100-foot cliffs to take out German artillery that was kept nearby. The small group of brave Rangers successfully defended this area for more than two days against multiple German counterattacks. It’s a remarkable story that Geert told well.

The American Cemetery

After leaving Pointe du Hoc we headed to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. This is the same cemetery that is shown in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan. The sight of all those crosses is both beautiful and moving. Over 9,000 American soldiers are buried there. The normally peaceful atmosphere of the area was a bit disturbed by the construction and preparations being made for the upcoming June 6th ceremonies. Geert took a few moments to explain some of the symbolic aspects of the cemetery’s design, and then he led us to the grave of General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Dad & Dee’s commander in North Africa) where we took a few photos. When the American flag was lowered at the end of the day, Dad & Dee had the honor of participating in the flag folding ceremony.

We then made our way to the nearby First Division Monument that stands on a bluff above Omaha Beach. Inscribed on this monument are the names of 1st Division soldiers that lost their lives from D-Day to July 24, 1944. Among those listed was Dad’s friend, Giacomo V. Patti. Dad credits Patti with saving his life in North Africa. He was killed by German artillery a couple weeks after D-Day in the vicinity of Caumont. I don’t know much about Patti but I do know he helped my dad get off a hill in Tunisia…and because of him we are here today.

The Big Red One

We made our last stop of the day at the brand new Big Red One Assault Museum that is located about 1/2 mile from the U.S. cemetery. There we met Pierre Gosselin, the owner of the museum. He’s a young and enthusiastic fan of the Big Red One who actually lives in a second-floor loft above the museum. He had a real nice display of WWII gear devoted to the First Division. You could tell that he really enjoyed meeting Dad and Dee. Before we left, he broke out a bottle of apple cider and we all made a toast to the Big Red One. That was the end of a long but very memorable day.

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