The sculpture “Les Braves” on Omaha Beach honors Allied soldiers who freed France during the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion. Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal


On a recent tour to Paris, my husband and I ate in historic restaurants, including one that opened in 1686. We saw Notre Dame being rebuilt. We saw the opulence of Versailles, sat in traffic jams caused by protesting taxi drivers. Protesting, we were told, is a national pastime in France.

But of all the sights, the most memorable, the most moving was looking down from the cliffs next to German bunkers over Omaha Beach, gaining a new sense of being grateful.

When we set out for the daylong bus ride from Paris on May 21, we didn’t expect what an up-close, hands-on history lesson we were about to receive.

Our tour guide, Trafalgar’s Jonathan Holburn, a native of France, did his thesis on the invasion. He was passionate about the improbability of what Allied soldiers achieved. D-Day was one of the few military battles, he told us, that actually changed the face of the world in the 20th century. Without it, he said, “I’d probably be speaking German.”

While today the beautiful beaches could be a big tourist destination, it is not. It’s preserved as a sacred war memorial. The barbed wire is still there, as are guns and tanks. We walked down from the parking lot onto the cliffs overlooking the beach, passing huge craters in the land. Those aren’t natural, we were told, the craters are from the bombing.


Our guide handed us a map of the June 6, 1944, invasion showing which military division was to attack Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Looking at the map, we were asked what would be the most logical place to invade?

Calais, we answered, where there’s a short distance between Dover, England and the French coast.

Yes, that’s what the Germans thought, Jonathan said. He told us about an elaborate, fake military base built near Dover, Operation Fortitude, with inflatable tanks, planes and the like to convince the Nazis that Calais would be the spot. The Allies even moved Gen. George Patton there, which German spies soon learned, to bolster confidence the invasion would be at Calais.

That prompted the Nazis to move more troops up the coast to Calais. Much of the success of the D-Day invasion was the surprise, and the sheer number of Allied forces.

But we heard about the steep, steep costs. A lot went wrong.

The first troops were dropped off in boats that hit sandbars too far from shore. Soldiers wearing 75 pounds of gear climbed off the boats and drowned in 15 feet of water, all the while under heavy fire.


We heard how air raids and bombing from naval ships in the hours before the landing were supposed to soften German defenses. But bad weather and poor visibility meant targets were missed. Soldiers dropped from planes in the wrong spots. Men were lost, some even drowned in deep ground trenches the Nazis had filled with water. It meant the troops landing on the beaches didn’t have the support that was intended. Most of the early waves of soldiers quickly died.

We walked inside still-intact German bunkers, looked through the same openings that the Nazi gunners looked out, showing a clear view of the cliffs and beaches. Jonathan pointed out “the unobstructed, 180 degrees view” they had. It wasn’t hard to imagine how so many soldiers were sitting ducks. Our guide pointed to steel rods built into the bunkers, which was new technology in 1944. The rods fortified the bunkers, making them difficult to destroy.

We heard about soldiers like U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, and how when things didn’t go as planned, he took command. He and others adapted and overcame the odds, somehow scaling the cliffs and breaking through enemy lines. But reinforcements didn’t come for hours.

We walked down onto Omaha Beach where waves caress the beautiful “Les Braves” sculpture. In front of the sculpture fly the flags of the Allied countries that invaded: United States, England and Canada.

Our tour ended walking up to the white marble crosses of Normandy everyone has seen in pictures. In person, a sense of scale is felt that isn’t captured in a photograph. There are thousands of rows that seem to go on and on.

We heard more stories of individual tales of courage, of heartbreaking suffering, of deaths. On that day we were prevented from walking between the crosses as crews were building preparations for the June 6 ceremony.


Driving through Normandy towns, past farms and quaint houses with thatched roofs, posters hang from streetlights of smiling faces and names of American soldiers remembered as heroes. Their faces are framed with the United States’ stars and stripes.

Everywhere there are U.S. flags flying, not only on monuments and government buildings, but on private homes.

They remember, and are still thankful.

Bonnie Washuk is a Sun Journal staff writer.

(Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slov

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