A somber visit to Normandy’s hallowed ground

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 29, 2013

Last month my wife and I stood above Omaha and Utah beaches on Pointe du Hoc. We were there almost 69 years and 30 hours after D-Day.
The sheer cliffs towered above the surf as high as Salisbury’s Plaza/Wallace Building. While a native Frenchman said it was a reasonably nice day in Normandy, it was overcast with occasional drizzling rain. My hands were numb from the cold. I held my cap to keep it from blowing off.
As we stood with the wind roaring in our ears, the surf crashing below, I know each of us must have wondered how those young heroes did it. Exhausted from 24 hours of seasickness in landing craft riding in rough seas, drenched from head to toe after wading and crawling ashore, fighting the wind and the numbing cold; how could they possibly have scaled those barbed-wire-crested cliffs holding on to grappling hooks with hands numbed by the cold, all the time under blistering machine-gun fire from above, fully aware that many of their colleagues would die that day?
Later, we visited the American cemetery. As it was the day after D-Day, six or eight survivors in their bemedaled dress uniforms were there for special ceremonies. Those of us who had served in the military were allowed to shake their hands.
We stood near the front of the amphitheater before the monument as a group of French grammar-school children sang a song they had written about a soldier whose life had been cut short on D-Day.
Truthfully, the gray skies cleared briefly, and the sun shone on the monument and our flag as the first few notes of our national anthem pealed from the bell tower. Most of us were too moved to do anything but mouth words.
We turned and faced nearly 10,000 grave markers on carefully manicured lawns between the monument and the sea. After a moment of silence, Taps was sounded.
My mind drifted back to the 1950s when I was in grammar and high school, those optimistic times when we naively believed our government, believed we were a good people, blessed by God with a special mission to preserve freedom and liberty. As is the case for many of us, those beliefs have been challenged as I’ve grown older and more cynical.
But when the sun broke through the clouds as the tower bells tolled the first few bars of our national anthem, I had to wonder — maybe we are special, maybe we are blessed by God, maybe we do have a mission.
At the end of the day, one thing became perfectly clear to me … Freedom and liberty are not without a price. That price for many is unspeakable courage and sacrifice.
Dr. Dennis Hill lives in Salisbury and recently retired from his medical practice.
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