Normandy a memory years cannot erase

Updated: July 8, 2006, 2:27 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

ARROMANCHES-LES-BAINS, France -- There are so many war memorials and monuments in France that it's easy to become oblivious. I'm as bad as the next person.

Central Paris is dotted with small plaques commemorating civilian fighters who died in the street battle as the Allies advanced and the Nazis retreated. When I was a kid growing up in the city, I walked by them every day without noticing. I seem to spot them more frequently now.

The other night when I stayed in the small town of Le Cateau-Cambresis in northeastern France -- the birthplace of artist Henri Matisse, and home to a fine little museum -- I walked in and out of my hotel several times before I stopped to read the inscription on a stone flower box standing squarely in front of the entrance, honoring British troops who fought there in World War I.

But there's one place where you can't ignore history: the Normandy beaches.

My parents took me and my younger brothers there when I was 14. The trip inspired me to read "The Longest Day" and "Is Paris Burning?" and made me forever sensitive to what it's like to have a war fought on your own soil. I hadn't been back to the area since, and felt something like a sense of duty to return when the Tour de France stopped in nearby Caen.

When I asked for directions as I pulled out of the press center parking lot, a police officer pointed me to the "plages d'embarquement" -- the landing beaches. I like the phrase because it implies that the action is still fresh.

I checked in at the Hotel de la Marine in Arromanches-les-Bains, on Gold Beach, one of the entry points for British forces in the D-Day invasion. The hotel is lovely in every way, including price: $135 buys a room, a three-course dinner and a basic breakfast. I unwound over a newspaper and my travel journal in the dining room and took in the view. Remnants of the floating port built there by the British, an engineering marvel of its day and a key element of invasion strategy, hunkered in the water like concrete whales.

A few people swam as a coral-colored sun sank into the clouds. A group of American high school students gathered around their teacher for a lecture on the walkway overlooking the beach. Vacationers walked by eating cotton candy and wheeling strollers. An illuminated carousel spun in the next-door parking lot, and vendors at an open-air market plied cheap jewelry, Corsican sausage and funky handbags.

Things quieted down at about midnight, and I fell asleep with the windows open, listening to the sound of the waves. I woke up to the same sound and the smell of baking bread.

It was misting rain when I set out for the town of Colleville-sur-Mer, site of the American military cemetery about 13 miles to the west, adjoining Omaha Beach. The narrow road twisted past a lot of soft meadows and weathered stone buildings that probably haven't changed much since 1944.

The cemetery opens at 9 a.m., and my car was one of the first in the parking lot. I walked to the observation platform and looked out at the shoreline and took a moment to reflect on the violence that took place there for a good cause. Then I walked to the cemetery where 9,387 U.S. soldiers are buried. They represent only about a third of the men who died in the Battle of Normandy. The rest were transported home at the request of their families.

Just as I remembered when I was a teenager, the white marble crosses and Stars of David extend in endless ranks to the horizon. When you approach them from the angle I did, they appear blank except for a small engraved number at the bottom. Then I walked between the rows and turned around and started reading the names, the hometowns and the dates that each man died.

It's rare that a childhood memory holds up 30-plus years later, but this one stayed true. My eyes welled up as I stood still and looked from marker to marker in one small quadrant of the enormous graveyard. Reading each name felt like a physical blow as I tried to comprehend the potential that had died with them and the impact on their families. I left red-eyed, wishing I had more time to linger, to walk the beach or go further down the coast to see the cliffs the Army Rangers climbed.

I took a few photos of Arromanches-les-Bains on my way back. A ponytailed girl walked by me holding a boogie board under one arm. Shop owners opened metal shutters and set out racks of postcards and boxes of neon-colored balls. Plastic sheathed the carousel, protecting it from the rain. Tanks in front of the June 6 museum stood sentry.

Part of the most formidable invasion force ever assembled once embarked here, as the French say. Now it's a beach town like many others. I guess that was the point.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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