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GUNS, SAND AND GIFT SHOPS STORY BY ANGELA WAT ERS, PHOTOGRAPHY BY WILLIAM GRAVES “Trish, I’m going to get one more whiskey – want anything?” Jeremy asks, standing in the Caen Ibis Hotel, the only bar for miles. “I’ve told you three times already,” she says in a soft British accent. “My name is Tracy, and I’ll stick to tea.” Across the table from Tracy sits her husband Brian, who finished a tour in Afghanistan in September 2013. To his left sits Jeremy, talking about his years as a soldier in the 1962 Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation. His son, speaking in a thick Irish trill, tells stories about running five miles on a broken foot during basic training for the Falkland War. There are 15 members in Jeremy’s group. They span 50 years of military history and are not in Normandy for the whiskey. As Tracy says, “we’re here to understand our history.” This year marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landing on the Normandy coast. It was the wave of men and machines that ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Now, despite survivors growing scarce and memories fading, the area remains as petrified as Pompeii, with countless museums, graveyards and military tourist attractions. The beaches are littered with ruins of invasion. The silver barbed wire, which lined the cliffs that greeted the Allied forces at the top of their vertical climb at Pointe du Hoc, is now a mangle of orange rust. The Normandy landing on June 6, 1944, was highly improbable and nearly impossible. In order to outfox Erwin Rommel, the man nicknamed the

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‘Desert Fox’ for his well-executed Africa campaign, the Allies depended on the element of surprise. They went after the most difficult beaches, gambling the Germans would be weakest there. They were right. The majority of the Nazi defenses faced inland at Pointe du Hoc, as the German generals considered the 100-foot high cliffs as a natural defense against an attack from the sea. Despite over a year of planning by top military strategists, the soldiers had a tough battle up the cliff. Some drowned in the English Channel because their equipment was heavy, others because of a

EVERYTHING SEEMS TO HAVE COME IN A CAN – CANS OF COKE, CANS OF TOBACCO AND CANNED CONDOMS hearty breakfast, causing seasickness. Down on the five beaches, thousands died from heavy German machine gun fire. The rocket-propelled grappling hooks attached to ropes and ladders that they were supposed to use got wet in the ocean, rendering some too waterlogged to let the men scale the cliff. Even if they managed to make it through the Nazi grenades that rained down, they still had an enemy to fight on the top. Second Ranger Battalion Private


Salva Maimone’s story, told in French and English, is engraved on a plaque on Omaha Beach. “The officers said everyone that even gets close to the cliff ought to get an award.” The Omaha Beach battlefield remains mostly the way the Rangers left it. The cliff is still speckled with 30-50 ft wide craters, where the Americans bombed the German forces. They are overgrown now with ulex bushes, which in the springtime bloom with yellow flowers and inch-long thorns, like the barbed wire. Between craters, there are the remnants of octagonal Nazi embankments, blown apart by bombs that continue to crumble with the years. The slick geometric nature of these fortifications resembles the architecture of lost civilizations more closely than any buildings of the modern era. The average age of the people who fought here was 24, but people in their early 20s are conspicuously missing from the modern Normandy landscape. “Around this time it is usually older people or families with young children,” says Alexandre Moreau, the manager of the Ibis hotel in Bayeux Port en Bessin. “When young people come it is more in the summer, with the good weather.” “When I go on vacation I like to fall into a new place,” adds Phillip Delahunty,


ALL OF THE DEATH, INJURIES AND ATROCITIES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR CAN MAKE THE HUMAN ELEMENT UNPALATABLE FOR THE PUBLIC a 21-year-old politics student at the American University of Paris. “I’ve been to the Normandy beaches, but only on trips with my parents.” The site of Operation Overlord, which was the place of over half-amillion casualties, is now a thriving family vacation destination. The gift shops of the museums even have battle sets of small green army men fighting black plastic Nazis complete with tanks, for ages three and up. Some come because they had a family member die during the invasion. Others go as pilgrims, looking to commune with the past, surrounded by the landscapes and artifacts of World War II. The museums house all the traces of the soldiers that fought here. There are tanks, backpacks, guns and the tin-can airplanes they flew in. Indeed, everything seems to have come in a can – cans of coke, cans of tobacco, and canned condoms. The dioramas show the When, Where,


Why and How, but the Who is not as evident between the mannequins with painted-on 5 o’clock shadows and wideeyed expressions. All of the death, injuries and atrocities of the Second World War can make the human element unpalatable for the public, but glimpses of personal lives can be caught through the cracks, like the rifle named “Betty,” the letters crudely engraved with a knife. Around about 2 a.m. the generations of veterans peel themselves from the bar in Caen. They have a 10 a.m. shuttle that takes them to the British landing sites in the morning. “My father was a firefighter during the London bombings,” says Jeremy. “All I remember of the War is going to our home in the country. It is incredible to see where the fighting took place.” For many like Jeremy, the beaches of Normandy are cultural shrines. Maybe this is why people still make the pilgrimage to see where the soldiers fought and the things they carried with them.


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Theaters of War  

Spring 2014

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