Among the Fallen at Normandy for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

By Sara Celi

Holy places can sometimes be hard to come by in the United States.

We rush around daily in a never-ending sea of skyscrapers, twisted highways, strip malls, and parking lots. If a building is over fifty years old, that sometimes qualifies as ancient. If a park appeared before 1930, we’re impressed it’s still around. If we stumble on a house with a historical marker, we often marvel at the upkeep and love required to keep it standing year after year. Forget about a lot of quiet spaces or reflective places. We’re lucky if our communities have a handful of those.

Perhaps that’s what makes the Normandy American Cemetery so striking. So stunning. And yes, in a way, so holy. It’s technically part of America, a hollowed place for WWII dead who will forever be remembered, but it’s also France, and a slip of foreign land along the English Channel where so many Americans took their last breath, all of them fighting for something larger than themselves.

It’s easy to wax poetic as you walk among their graves. It’s not hard to walk away feeling changed.

I visited on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day itself, a time of worldwide reflection about a cold, dreary morning in 1944, when the largest armada in history landed in Normandy after a choppy night a sea. The invasion was by many accounts the longest day of WWII, a fierce battle that left thousands of Allied forces dead, and devastated a critical point of the Nazi Germany’s Atlantic Wall in a place much of the leadership never expected. From here, the story goes, Americans, British, French, Canadian, Australian, and other Allied troops swept across France, liberating Paris a few months later and Berlin in the spring of 1945. D-Day is the exalted turning point of it all, the moment democratic loving countries stood up to Hitler and his hatred, making sure that the Western front would be just as hard for the Germans to fight as the Eastern one.

But that’s not the entire story.

The Normandy campaign didn’t go as planned. It got messy and complicated, almost from the moment the armada set out from Portsmouth, England. The weather didn’t cooperate. Troops got sick. People became afraid. The Nazis stationed in Northern France proved willing to fight hard and long, afraid a fate worse than death awaited them if they became POWs who might one day get traded to the Red Army in the east. The French people in Normandy paid a stiff price, with thousands of innocents dead by the end of that summer, collateral damage of the advancing and retreating armies. The full wrath of Nazi terror spread through the rest of France that summer, too, almost as an answer to the devastating D-Day invasion. In one village alone on June 10th, SS soldiers killed over 640 people.

Standing among the graves of the Normandy American Cemetery, you feel all of that and more.

Each headstone is meticulously carved. Each one polished almost daily. And each a testament to the appreciation of the dead.  The cemetery groundskeeper knows just how long the blades of grass should be and keeps it all trimmed with a military-like precision. As I walked through the rows, I never once saw a rogue clover, dandelion, or patch of crabgrass. At the American Cemetery, these things do not exist.

The day I visited held a mix of emotions.

As the world watched on the 75th anniversary of the landings, an official ceremony recognized not only those who died for freedom, but also those who made it off the beach alive. Several hundred WWII veterans gathered on a dais with President Trump, President Macron, their wives and other dignitaries for a program that stretched into two hours. A few who had not received the French Legion of Honor found it pinned to their chest, an enteral thank you from a nation that considers those who invaded France on behalf of the Allies just as much French citizens as they are citizens of their home countries.  Music, speeches, a twenty-one-gun salute, and air show of planes and patriotism topped off the bittersweet day.

I watched from a row in the back. While I cried throughout the ceremony, I wept the most during the national anthems.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, I knew I’d feel something that day, that I wouldn’t walk away from it all without a pull on my heart. How could I? I’d have to be dead inside to not be moved by what I knew going in would be a ceremony that walked a tightrope between celebration, commemoration, and grief.

But for me, the most soaring moment came early on, as the collective body rose to sing the national anthems of both France and the United States. 

We don’t often gather to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. Save from the occasional sports game or parade, it doesn’t show up much.  People complain about the tune, mess up the words, and say they don’t understand why Francis Scott Key wrote the poem the way he did.  Moreover, in the last few years, even talking about the national anthem has ruffled feathers and caused offense as people debate our country’s past, it’s record on civil rights, and the realities that come with being citizens of a messy republic. It’s easy for many to dismiss the words in the anthem as hollow platitudes about something that never was and never will be. 

Not on that day.

First, the French people in attendance lent their voices to La Marseillaise, their own national song. It showed up in 1792, after the French Revolution spawned a war with Austria. The lyrics are a controversial battle cry, a call to the French people to unite against tyranny, to dig in when times are hard, and to never give up the fight for principles bigger than themselves. I’ll admit, as an American, I’d never paid attention to the words, and couldn’t remember when I’d last heard it sung. But on that shining, clear day, I heard thousands of French people lift the notes to the sky, and the words rang in my heart.

Then it was our turn.

For the first time in my life, I sang The Star-Spangled Banner in a foreign land. Even more, I did it with a few thousand strangers, among the graves of thousands more who never got a chance to sing it again in their homeland. My cracked, tuneless voice joined a chorus from every part of America—West Coast, East Coast, Midwestern, Southern, male, female, old, young, middle-aged, rich, poor, white, minority, immigrant, first generation, founding generation, religious, non-religious, Republican, Democrat, left, right, and center, all gathered together at the commemoration.

None of the usual categories mattered in that moment. Not one.

Instead, we were all Americans. All united in remembering those that pushed back against the devil himself, who peered into the gates of hell and didn’t budge. All struck for a moment in the realization that we might not enjoy our freedom of debate, our chance to make change, our individuality, and our deep tapestry of unique experiences if someone who came long before us hadn’t been willing to die for it.

Days later, I can’t think of a more patriotic moment at a ceremony.

Freedom is messy. It’s fraught. It doesn’t always work. But it’s also worth giving everything for, no matter how hard it might be. And the Normandy American Cemetery is one of the best places to remember just how noble the sacrifice is, just how meaningful the fight. Freedom lives there among the graves. And it never leaves. 

I’m told that even on a normal day, a day without pomp and circumstance, the Normandy American Cemetery still manages to impress visitors. Several people have told me that it’s a must see on a quiet Tuesday or a cold Saturday. No matter what time of year, the gravity of the price paid by those who rest there eternally is always felt. I have to say, I believe that statement. 

If you are ever in Normandy, this hallowed ground is a must see.

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