Every time I go there, I hesitate before I walk down weather-beaten steps onto the golden sands. I feel the spirits. Then I’m standing on Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, the deadliest place on 6 June 1944. It was here that more than half of A Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, was slaughtered in the first wave of Americans to land that longest of days almost 79 years ago.
I will return to this hallowed stretch of coastline this June with Friends of the National World War II Memorial. There are so many emotions and memories I carry onto those sands. I am not religious in any formal sense, but if I have a church then it is that beach, arcing gracefully for more than five miles and where more than 900 Americans gave their lives so that I could live mine in peace and freedom.
I always kneel down and touch the sands, palms open. Then I scoop up the coarse grains and half-fill a pocket, wanting to take away a memento. I am always full of unfathomable gratitude. My prayers are silent. I say thanks to the young men who died there. I say thanks to the warriors I’ve met who fought there and have since passed away.
I walk to the water line when the tide is out, sometimes stepping over runnels, imagining what it might have been like to enter the jaws of death, to hear the bullets crack constantly overhead. I look along the beach and the past floods the present. And with the passing of time, the days I have spent in Normandy have taken on ever greater meaning, forming a pattern, providing a center of weight to my life.
I first visited Omaha Beach with my best friend in the Nineties. I treasure a photo he took of me, supremely alive, holding a map, looking for where Robert Capa, the celebrated Life photographer, risked his life on Easy Red sector to capture the finest images taken on Omaha on D-Day. I was researching a biography of Capa but I knew when I walked along that wind-swept beach, past grassy dunes, that I had found so much more than where a war photographer had recorded better than any other the tragedy, drama and heroism of Omaha.
It was above Dog Green sector that I learned about the National Guard unit, A Company of the 116th Infantry Regiment, which had been butchered in a matter of minutes on 6 June 1944. Back in the U.S., I began to research the story of the men from Bedford, Virginia, who had died in A Company, nineteen in all, on D-Day. I gave their story a name – The Bedford Boys. Every publisher that saw my proposal rejected it and then, a few months later, came 9/11 and a report in the New York Times. A journalist had visited the one place in America that had on one day suffered unimaginable loss as New York did that bright, sunny September day – Bedford, Virginia. The report sparked interest in the town’s WWII tragedy and in 2003, twenty years ago, my book was finally published.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone back to Bedford – for Memorial Day, for Veterans Day, for anniversaries of D-Day. Every time, I meet relatives of those who died and feel blessed to have been lucky enough to create the history of this one small American community’s sacrifice. Writing that book gave my life meaning, bonded me to America, and to veterans, to widows, to true warriors, all now gone.
On Omaha, I have shown my son why he should be proud to be American. I told him always to hold his head high. In the graveyard above the beach, I walked through the perfect white rows with my British father. He too was full of awe. We had never been particularly close but in the wonderful garden of the fallen he understood a little, at last, why I had been away from home, living in America, for so long.
I’ve listened to Presidents on D-Day anniversaries in that graveyard. I’ve rubbed golden sand into the engraved names on head-stones. I’ve seen so very many Americans cry there, overwhelmed by intense sadness and pride and renewed patriotism. I’ve seen French school-children being given a tour of the graveyard, visiting every Bedford Boy who lies in eternal peace there. I was told that the best way to get kids to understand what happened on Omaha was to personalize the heroism and loss through my story of those nineteen men from Virginia who lost their lives so that they, as French citizens, could grow up in freedom.
Omaha has given me so very much – a place to mourn, to pray, to draw close to others, to celebrate victory of good over evil. In tough times, that beach has made me count my blessings. I have met people I now care very deeply for there. Even on the coldest days, with rain falling, and as the surf crashes, I have felt extraordinarily at peace, knowing the sands beneath my feet will wash away but Omaha will forever remain, at the very heart of my life.
When I’ve left that beach, placed a wreath in the graveyard, roses at each headstone of a Bedford Boy, listened to Taps, and finally gotten to lie down in a hotel room in Normandy…sometimes the sands I’ve collected spill out of my pockets like so many grains of time, reminding me of how short our stay on this fragile planet can be. I try to fall asleep, remembering the old men with medals who made me laugh and cry for hours on end; the widows I interviewed before they died who still loved their husbands, killed on Omaha, many decades later; and one hard-living veteran who was incapable of uttering a single word as I once crossed those deadly sands with him at my side.
I am indeed going back to my church again soon. I’ll squat down, touch the sands, and pray once more. I’ll look to the sky and thank Heaven for all the riches those valiant souls gave me. And I’ll repeat to myself the words inscribed on the wall of the chapel in the graveyard above that beach: “Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit.”