Small Wars Journal

Normandy: An Observation

Share this Post

Normandy: An Observation

Keith Nightingale

The cemetery at Omaha Beach is a lodestone for the human soul.  Its vast and manicured marble garden is an attractant that no pheromone can match.  Each visitor takes away a deeply personal view of the precise survey-aligned monuments.  For some, it is a chance to re-visit a friend from a moment many years ago.  For others, it is a simple statement of the strength of the human spirit, and the ultimate good deeds that the interred achieved.  For all, its sanctity is affirmed.

Perhaps the most impressive scene is the endless groups of children that course between the marbles. Stopping at a particular point, they gather to view a name, a unit and a date, as their teacher or guide notes. They show boundless curiosity, enthusiasm, and interest, yet they are not Americans, and they have no blood relative within the immaculately trimmed borders.  These are French children surveying and studying the price paid for their freedom.  The limitless energy, questions and note taking, indicate a strong true interest in the events the marble implies.  They note the dates and the volume for specific weeks or days years ago that brought the name on the cross to this place.  They discuss the unit of the deceased and recall its history on their soil and remember that they live where he died.  Altogether, their presence is a profound statement of gratefulness for those whose presence then is established by their presence now.  These children know what ours do not.

Seventy-three years ago, a generation of American’s conducted the largest single purpose operation our civilization has ever undertaken and probably ever will.  The vast majority of those participants have died leaving only a miniscule amount of then-teenagers, now nonagenarians.  How will that day of day’s be remembered and commemorated? Will it be forgotten in the course of time?  If this year’s anniversary events are any indication, that day and those that were there will be remembered by succeeding generations of Norman school children—the true symbols of the purpose and goodness of the event now so long ago.

During the anniversary period, virtually every village, large and small holds a commemoration and memorial of the event and specifically of what occurred at that location.  Plaques have been placed describing the actions of that period and identifying the specific US elements engaged.  In many cases, names of specific participants have been indicated as well as their actions and how they liberated the local population.  Depending upon the size of the village, dignitaries at several levels within the political structure will make short speeches to honor the US personnel brought by fate and chance to the location.  This is not a commercial enterprise, but a deep sincere and lasting recognition of who freed their grandparents and the sacrifices we, the US and Allies, made on their behalf.  “Mort por la France” accompanies the mention of a specific name.  And they died for us.

They see in the soldiers of today, their grandparent in uniform, then so young, so strong, and so important. Through the disciplined formations at the memorial services, they also see the rows of crosses in the many military cemeteries that dot the once troubled land.  After the ceremonies, many will approach a soldier, grasp his or her hand, and thank them with broad smile, a firm handshake and a strong “Merci.” The soldiers are initially mystified by this repetitive event but, soon they realize the sincerity and the import.  Most, on later describing their experience, will say this was the most profound and meaningful of the trip.  

Most of the ceremonies do not include US personnel other than by chance.  Should active duty troops be able to provide a color guard or a senior officer to speak, they will be given a place of honor at the front and treated as the liberators of the past.  No US soldier has had to spend a cent for drinks and meals at the usual concluding lunch or dinner.  The sincere gratitude of the locals has been a consistent overwhelming event to each of our soldiers.  The depth and sincerity of the gestures is without precedent to anything they have been experienced.  It goes far beyond applause at an airport or perfunctory “Thank you for your service.” It comes from the heart.

The bearers of this gratitude are invariably the children of these villages.  They will present flowers or tokens to the troops.  The ceremony often involves a small children’s chorus from the local school, and more often than not, includes a unique rendition of the Star Spangled Banner or America, sung in a heavily French accented child’s version of English.  It is hard not to tear up.  Later, the children will tug at the soldier’s sleeves and ask for a souvenir patch or unit insignia and an autograph. 

Forewarned, most troops come armed with a pocket full of Airborne, Ranger or unit insignias.  The child will proffer a piece of paper for the celebrity soldier to sign.  He or she will invariably be asked to indicate his or her unit.  If it is one that was there on D Day, a large smile will erupt on the face and often as not, in broken English, the child will recount what that unit did that day.  This is not artifice but design. They know in intimate detail what our children do not.  More importantly, they understand.

In Normandy, the Liberation (not invasion), is current events, and it is imbedded in the elementary and high school curriculum.  Students are given specific units to study which usually were those that participated on 6 June.  These range from the expected-Airborne, but often include the air transport, fighter commands or bomber units-especially if they crashed nearby, as many did.  Should a vet be present, usually in a wheelchair or walker now, the more senior students will recount the history of a vet’s element as introductions are made.  In many cases, the child will know more than the vet as to the organizational events of that period.

Consider that this has been the case from 1945 to today.  The grandparents and great grandparents have died.  The parents are of middle age.  Yet the fervor and energy of the children has remained well past any first person memory.  The Normans are absolutely sincere in their deep dedicated devotion to the Americans who arrived at night, freed their land, and bled on their ground. Some may be found at the cemetery above Omaha Beach. Children will be there.

The children laying flowers at the small town monuments, tugging on the fatigue shirt of a soldier asking for an autograph or walking between the rows of marble crosses in the cemetery insure what happened those years ago will always be remembered and appreciated in succeeding generations.  Any veteran of that period, resting in a wheelchair or holding a proffered arm, would be the first to say that it was all for the children.  Somehow, the children know that.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.


With all due respect to Col. Nightingale, this is a very romantic take on history that could use factual perspective.

Firstly, were the Normandy Landings truly the “largest single purpose operation our civilization has ever undertaken”?

-What of all of the other decisive efforts to defeat National Socialist Germany, including providing materiel and logistics to the other Allies, especially the Soviets?
-What of the struggle against Imperial Japan, which may well have murdered more civilians than Germany, albeit with a two-year head start?
-What of the crucial postwar American support for and commitment to liberal democracies during the Cold War, and the containment of another aggressive, expansionist, mass murdering and totalitarian state?
-What of the prewar carnage of the Civil War, in which the United States fought a war mainly of choice for a “higher object” (abolition)?

Secondly, although Normandy was indeed liberated from German occupation, Gaullist postwar propaganda has rewritten history to evade inconvenient facts:

-Far more Norman civilians were killed by Allied bombing (52,000) than by the German occupiers
-The French Resistance was not very intense in Normandy, and was dependent upon external support (e.g. SOE)
-Far more French collaborated with the Germans (Vichy, S.S. and Wehrmacht volunteers) than resisted them

As someone who takes historical facts seriously, no matter how confounding to my attempts at making coherent narratives, it is rather amusing to see the enthusiasm for Allied liberation in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. It does make one wonder if this gratefulness is cathartic in forgetting the tens of thousands of nationals from these countries who collaborated at home with the Germans or who fought for them abroad, in forgetting that resistance depended upon outside encouragement and support, and in forgetting the capitulation to a monstrous invader in order to avoid the fate of Poland, Yugoslavia and Belarus.

This is a wonderful sentiment going into the holiday. I can only hope the same experience is shared here in the USA and think Honor Flights come close without having to fly over the Ocean.