Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reflections on my visit to the American Cemetery at Coleville Sur Mer - Normandy, France

I took a trip this summer to France. What a terrific experience we had and what a wonderful time with friends and family. We saw so many things worth seeing there, but for me the single reason, the single motivation for all of the expense and trouble of travel was just one thing... to walk on Omaha Beach... to stand on the sand of that beach in Normandy France and see where the allied troops landed on that fateful day in history. I needed to see it for myself. It was on my bucket list. Our bus brought us there, arriving via the highway access at the west end of the beach. We got off of the bus and walked down and stood on the beach. Dog/Green Sector... that's what the allies called this place. If you have seen the movie, "Saving Private Ryan", this is where they landed. It was a killing field on June 6, 1944.


I collected some sand to take home with me. Some of the sand that I collected was for a WWII veteran who had landed on this beach that day. It was my honor and privilege to meet him and present him with this memento and talk with him a little about his experiences there. Thanks Bill. Thanks for sharing your experiences with me. Thanks for the chance to get to know you. Thanks for your service to your country and to the people who you liberated in that terrible war, and to the generations who live in freedom today because of your service.

After leaving Omaha Beach we drove to the American Cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer. It overlooks those same beaches where so many young men died that day.

I wrote this piece after my visit there.

God Forgive Us

We come by bus to see them. We walk among them and stare at the names and we take some pictures and then we get back on the bus and go to see the next sight. Lots more to see today, got to get to the next attraction before the gift shop closes.
When we are gone there is nothing but silence. They cannot speak. They have no voices. They lost them when the breath left their bodies. If they could speak what would they say to us, I wonder? What would they ask of us? What would the dead say to the living? Would they ask to go with us? Would they ask to share our lives, since theirs have been taken from them?
They cannot leave. They must stay here. They must stay behind, remaining here among the perfectly manicured lawns, perfect symmetry, rows and rows, perfectly aligned, perfectly placed in elevation, lines so straight, pleasing to the eye.
Too perfect… too clean…too sanitized… too much order for my liking. As I stand looking at them, studying them, I sense something that is not there, something that should be there. Something is missing. Then it dawns on me. The missing piece… actually, it’s the missing color. There’s plenty of green, a sea of green grass, laid out like a bright green velvet carpet. The crosses are white, so white that they’re almost iridescent as the sun shines down on them, overwhelming in their geometry, forming intricate intersecting patterns in white marble. Then I see it. I see it with my mind, not with my eye. There is no red. There is no red anywhere! Not a spot, not a blush of crimson anywhere. Shouldn’t there be some red? Maybe just one little rose bush, or a spot of red somewhere in this immaculate field of green and white? Shouldn’t we be reminded of the blood that was shed here in this place… on these shores? Should we not acknowledge their suffering, their shredded bodies, their blood, which drenched the beaches of this place, which soaked into the rich soil of this Normandy? Not my place to wonder I suppose, but I wonder nonetheless.
God makes things. He is the maker. He made this grass, and these trees. He made this land. He made us. What do we make? What does man make? We make wars. We make graves. Man, can we make graves… perfect rows of graves, beautiful graves. Not much to be proud of in that… great grave makers, we.
These graves, each one of them represents a hole in space and time. A hole… an empty place where there use to be a life, a young man’s life. There are nine thousand three hundred and eighty seven of them here. Nine thousand three hundred and eighty seven empty places. Nine thousand three hundred and eighty seven holes that cannot be filled again. Their fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and wives and sons and daughters have to rebuild their own lives around these holes, these empty places. They have to try to mend the fabric of their torn lives, lives which have been ripped apart. Nine thousand three hundred and eighty seven times a thousand… tears shed. Nine thousand three hundred and eighty seven young men who will never get married, or be dads, or coach little league, or make a million dollars, or go broke trying to make a million dollars, or hold their granddaughters on their lap, or just stretch and yawn and remember how great it is to be alive on a warm, sunny summer morning. Their lives are gone. They were taken from them, and with them was taken every accomplishment, every achievement, every gift and talent that they brought to the world, or would have brought to the world. What a drain on the wealth of the world.  All of the potentials that their lives held were wiped away, drained away as they bled out on the beach, or as they lie in a ditch by a hedge-row with their guts spilled out on the ground in front of them. Not nearly so neat their deaths… not nearly so neat as these rows of white crosses on these manicured lawns.
Such shallow regard we give them. We spend a few moments, snap a few pictures, and maybe say a prayer… God forgive us for not praying if we come to this place! Then we get back on the bus and we leave them behind. God forgive us for forgetting them. God forgive us for not remembering them every day. God forgive us for not taking a part of them with us wherever we go. God forgive us for not living our lives for them, and in honor of them. God forgive us for taking for granted our liberty, our freedom. God forgive us.

M.J. Smith

June 19, 2012



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