As someone interested in history and especially World War II, there are two places that represent the most hallowed ground. The first is the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and the second is here, the Normandy American Cemetery.
The cemetery is the final resting place for 9,388 American soldiers killed mostly in the events of D-Day and in further action during the liberation of Europe.
This location is near the first, temporary cemetery created on June 8, 1944. These 172 acres are free of charge or tax to the United States and managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission. This agency manages 55 cemeteries and monuments all over the world, 25 of which are in France. Today’s cemetery’s dedication occurred on July 18, 1956.
Looking to the north, the site where many of these men (boys, really) lost their lives can be seen – Omaha Beach.
Today’s visit falls on Memorial Day. A special time to visit the Normandy American Cemetery because with all of the headstones are French and American Flags. Usually, the headstones are bare, with only sporadic floral arrangements or single flowers at their bases.
While the crosses give a very uniform look – an overwhelming one to be sure – the sacrifices of jewish soldiers are noted with the Star of David headstone.
The burials are not separated by rank; officers and enlisted men are side-by-side.
One thing I did not expect: so many unknown soldiers. There are 307 burials of unknown soldiers in the cemetery. Additionally, there is a “Wall of the Missing” at the far east end of the memorial that lists the names of 1,557 soldiers who died in the Normandy Campaign but could not be located or their remains identified.
Medal of Honor Winners in Normandy Cemetery
Three Medal of Honor Winners are here at Normandy. These headstones stand apart from the rest. Two of them, Jimmie Monteith, Jr. and Frank Peregory, are both from Virginia.
Emphasized with gold lettering, a five-pointed star, and vertical “Medal of Honor” type, their headstones are very recognizable against the field of similar white crosses.
Frank Peregory’s medals are on display in the on-site museum.
The third Medal of Honor winner in the Normandy American Cemetery is Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of President Theodore Roosevelt. Quentin Roosevelt, Junior’s brother, moved here to be next to his brother. Quentin is the only soldier in the cemetery from World War I.
Read Jimmy Monteith’s Medal of Honor Citation here. Read Frank Peregory’s here. Read Theodor Roosevelt, Jr.’s here.
Other burials of interest in the cemetery are:
the Niland Brothers whose story inspired the film Saving Private Ryan
Twins Julius and Ludwig Pieper. On June 19, 2018 Julius, previously unidentified and buried in Belgium, moved to be next to his brother in Normandy.
The circular cemetery chapel is limestone and granite. A black marble altar sits on a two tiered limestone platform.
Inside the chapel you’ll find an inscription that says “Think not only upon their passing remember the glory of their spirit.”
On the ceiling of the Normany American Cemetery Chapel there is a beautiful mosaic of angels providing comfort and strength to soldiers on land, sea, and in the air.
Normandy American Cemetery Memorial
The memorial consists of a large semi-circular colonnade, a reflecting pool, a massive sculpture, and loggias to the north and south with large murals that depict the positions of Allies and Axis Powers during the D-Day assault.
The sculpture is “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” In-person, it had a certain familiarity to me. Returning home, I researched the piece and found the sculptor Donald De Lue.
De Lue’s “Rocket Thrower” is another large sculpture created for the 1964 World’s Fair I previously found in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. He also sculpted “The Mountaineer” for my alma mater, West Virginia University.
The stones set in the memorial area floor are from Omaha Beach.
The map on the south loggia depicts the Normandy landings and subsequent movement inland; the north loggia map shows the Allied movements through Western Europe from D-Day until the German surrender in May 1945.
Visitor Center Museum
Built in 2007, the Visitor Center Museum tells the incredible story of the D-Day landings and the Liberation of France through interactive exhibits, movies, and real artifacts from soldiers.
A display with these good luck charms caught my eye. A lucky coin, ring, rabbit’s foot, and a Zippo with a four leaf clover.
Gravity hits home here in the visitor center, too. While the cemetery field is an overwhelming experience, the Visitor Center Museum offers the Sacrifice Gallery. It is a quiet space that tells the stories of selected individuals who lost their lives.
In the center of the room is this simple display of a soldier’s rifle and helmet known as the Battlefield Cross.
Day is done, gone the sun
Near the end of the day, the staff lowers the flags and loudspeakers play Taps. At first I was pretty disappointed that the flag wasn’t lowered by a soldier and that taps wasn’t played by a live bugle.
But after those first three notes, at the short pause before the next three notes, it hit me hard that it didn’t matter who lowered the flag or how the song played. One million people a year come to visit Normany American Cemetery and these 9,388 that gave it their all. Every day their sacrifices are appreciated, honored, and respected.
Visit the Normandy American Cemetery
The cemetery is open to the public daily, except on December 25 and January 1. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April 15 to September 15, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Staff members are on duty in the visitor center to answer questions and escort relatives to grave and memorial sites.
Return in 2044 for the 100th anniversary of D-Day and also watch the opening of a time capsule buried in the lawn in front of the Administration Center.
Beautifully written and presented. I am sure it was a very moving experience to be there.
I had to read this for 2 days .Everytime I started the tears flooded my eyes.I hope all these men and women knew that they were saving our lives and our way of life for many generations to come .Thank you!!!!