D-Day: 70th anniversary in pictures
Seventy years after the Day of Days, Normandy has shed itself of much of Hitler's Atlantic Wall. Monuments to the heroes of that day, and the many after, tower over the decaying bunkers. Here's what Omaha and Utah beaches and the American Cemetery look like today.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, more than 156,000 men landed on the beaches of Normandy, starting the Invasion of Europe and the beginning of the end of Hitler and his Third Reich.
Now, 70 years later, most of the bunkers are gone. The tank traps, temporary harbors, and most of the rest of both Allied and Nazi tools of war have disappeared.
But the monuments to Allied heroes stand tall above the sands. Here are Omaha, Utah, and the American Cemetery, D-Day plus 70 Years.
On the train bound from Paris, the famous names click by with the disaffected tone so mastered by most French and all train conductors: Caen, Carentan...places of legend, made real by a trackside sign and disembodied announcement.
The fields and hedgerows, made iconic by countless films, here show the peaceful serenity of over two-thirds of a century of quiet. A length of time largely unmatched in the history of this country. It's longest, bitterest rival, now connects to its northwestern coast via a tunnel of remarkable scope.
The towns and villages themselves mix modern stores and parking lots with stone-faced homes and buildings either legitimately old or made to look that way. There's a quaintness to the province, as if the inhabitants had seen enough history for countless lifetimes.
As my train thunders across the open fields, passing 90mph, under fluffy clouds dotting cerulean blue, I can't help but think back what it was like, those first hours of the Day of Days.
You are about to embark upon a great crusade...
The somber beaches hold little of the warmth and charm of their sandy brethren around the world. Perhaps it's the weight of their past, pressing down the air.
My first stop is Utah Beach, a flat stretch of coastline otherwise unremarkable. A stage is set up, and a rock band is playing loud, marginally inappropriate classic rock. This isn't a place for music with vocals.
I travel south, towards Omaha Beach. Over 3,600 died here that day, something not hard to believe when you look at it. The land rises up away from the beaches: easily defensible, difficult to attack. Now, however, paths and steps have been fashioned into the hill, allowing easy access to the remaining bunkers, now overgrown with grass and foliage. Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches, where the British and Canadians landed, would have to wait, as the hour was late and I'd lost the light.
The next morning I get up early, and stand on Omaha Beach at 6:30, the time the first landing craft hit the beaches so many decades earlier. The air is on the verge of being cold. The water is frigid. It's surprising how much light there is, the sun having already risen after being set for only eight hours.
I find breakfast at a small restaurant, while waiting for the cemetery to open. There, I'm connected to the past by a 93-year-old who survived being in the first wave on Omaha Beach, and everything the following 70 years threw at him. Spry and friendly, this was his third time back to Normandy.
Later, at the cemetery, I saw even more veterans of World War II. They were swarmed upon, treated like rock stars. Photos, interviews, autographs, those that were interested were followed by small crowds, wanting to hear anything they had to say.
But others preferred a more solitary experience. One quiet member of the 82nd Airborne said this was his first time back to Normandy. He said little, preferring to take occasional pictures with his digital camera.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
To officially commemorate the event, Queen Elizabeth, President Obama, President Hollande, and even President Putin will all pay their respects. They'll surely shake hands, make small talk, perhaps discuss the time when our countries were able to unite against a clear and common enemy.
The breach of the Atlantic Wall, the Invasion of Europe, the moment we can now say was the beginning of the end of the war. Differences were put aside, altogether too briefly, but proof that it could be done, if the cause was extreme enough.
This is likely the last decennial anniversary with any WWII veterans in attendance, but it's clear from the mix of people, those soldier's sacrifices, and the sacrifices of their late comrades, will not be forgotten.