Nine years ago my son and I traveled to Normandy. Joe finished his undergraduate program at Stetson University. Our trip was part vacation, part renewal. Joe would move on to Brittany and then Prague for a university endorsed exchange program.
Joe is my oldest son. For twenty-two years he had to be sympathetic to his dad’s deep concentration in the history of this nation’s hero’s. Joe and I bantered for a few months on the actual itinerary for our graduation trip. Each of us tried to answer questions for the other, without a sincere direct discussion. We managed to agree on a week in Normandy, another week in southern France and then a separation of our ways. Surely, a concession was made to me to complete an item on my To-do list: a visit to the Normandy cemetery to pay my respects to those whom accomplished so much at the cost of their lives.
We arrived by train shortly before the anniversary of D-Day. The train stop was quiet but for a dozen Americans all with the same thoughts and all expecting a rental car to await them. Joe was the only one with a fragment of French. It was a delight to see him basically become the rental agent and resolve the rental issue for all the others. The cost of a private undergraduate degree was starting to pay us back.
We had a wonderful day in Bayeux. We learned that Bayeux survived the war by accommodating and sharing their wonderful produce with the immediate German occupation force. Hitler had no idea. The occupying force was very pleased with this arrangement, otherwise most of the fine food would have been shipped back to Germany to feed a civilian German population that had been reduced to survival rations. Yes, until the Germans conquered the lowlands in the West, the population of Germany sacrificed the little they had to support the soldiers in the field. Since Normandy was a very large agricultural region the produce from Bayeux was never missed.
We ate very well and woke the next morning to the equivalent of a Nor’Easter. Initially, we drove to Utah Beach. We couldn’t see much in the rain, but it was obvious the souvenir stands had replaced the German bunkers. With hopes in hand Joe drove us to Omaha Beach. We parked overlooking the grassy heights and walked down on the beach. By now I could barely stand up in the wind. I tried desperately to enjoy the moment. The wind and rain was so horizontal I felt as if I was being scalped of my few remaining hairs. We walked with the wind and never did find the entrance to the military museum or cemetery. I was so deflated.
I awoke the next day thinking we needed to get out of town or be further disappointed. Joe would have none of it. He wrangled one more attempt out of me; “ten miles dad, we’ll find it I promise.” And so he did. I was never so happy to turn over the controls to my son.
More importantly, the Normandy Museum just the month before completed an overhaul. Joe entered the hall thinking of me. He exited thinking of all those great soldiers that gave their lives and those that won the day. As a baby-boomer I was so happy that the message came through to my Millennial. The Museum is not an electronic wonder catered to the Millennials. It is a vivid black and white chronology of the invasion that spirals down from the enormity of its size to the individual contribution of every private that came ashore that day. He left the museum with a clear and deep appreciation of the “Greatest Generation's” accomplishments. I couldn’t have been happier.
We proceeded to the cemetery. There were many visitors but every-one of us went dumb. You are pulled to the green lawn by the simple white grave markers of every religion for the nine-thousand buried there. Your emotions will swell and so will your pride.
Look for Theodore Roosevelt Jr’s cross close to the ocean cliff, Plot D, Row 28, Grave 45. He is buried next to his brother killed in the First World War. Ted Jr, also served in World War I. He volunteered to be one of the first American soldiers to go to France. He was gassed and wounded after participating in several battles. His story is a classic. Though he was the eldest son of a former president and a distant nephew of the then current President, he volunteered again to join the Army in 1940, at the age of 53. He suffered from arthritis, forcing him to use a cane and he concealed a heart condition.
His WWII combat experience began in 1942, in North Africa. Our army was using weapons from the last war and totally green in combat experience but they eventually pushed the Nazi’s back out of Africa. Unfortunately, General Patton and subsequently, General Bradley thought his style was unorthodox. Each believed that he “loved his division too much” and was less than aggressive at one point in this grueling theatre. He was relieved of his command as a general and reassigned.
Roosevelt served in Sicily and Sardinia and then was assigned to England and the invasion force that landed on Utah Beach. His senior officer made a serious attempt to hold him back from the very first wave to hit Utah. Roosevelt was incessant. General Barton made it clear to Ted that he didn’t expect him to survive the first wave. Off he went. The only General to go with the first wave on Utah Beach.
The landing craft drifted two kilometers off course. He is quoted as having said to his men, “We’ll start the war from right here!” Utah beach was secured by mid-morning. General Barton came assure and was greeted by Roosevelt.
Six days later Roosevelt was involved in a major fire fight and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor. Bitter sweet and genuinely American.