After a visit to Paris, to Mont Saint-Michel, and a stopover in Bayeux, our vacation included a drive to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. As one of the world’s best-known military cemeteries, a million visitors stop here each year to pay their respects. It’s an incredible place to visit if you’re visiting northern France, the final resting place for thousands of Americans who died here.
This beautiful cemetery sits on a bluff overlooking the Normandy beaches where the D-Day assaults took place. It’s a place to honor and remember the American soldiers who fought to liberate Europe and died in the Normandy invasion.
Opening Scene – Saving Private Ryan
Maybe you’ve seen the Normandy American Cemetery–in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan, as Ryan paid an emotional visit to this cemetery (the movie is based on the Niland brothers who are buried side by side there). As shown in the movie, the cemetery is a beautiful sea of white crosses and stars of David, a quiet and peaceful final resting place for 9,387 American soldiers.
When we arrived at the cemetery, we first stopped at the Visitor Building where information about the cemetery is available and staff members are there to answer questions. You can learn about the invasion and the significance of what was accomplished by the Allied forces. Visitors are also invited to access a database to learn about each the soldiers who lost their lives in the invasion.
Leaving the Visitors Building, we took a path to the memorial, an impressive semicircular colonnade with large maps and military displays on the inside wall. In the center stands a 22-foot bronze statue representing “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Behind the Memorial is the Garden of the Missing, where the names of the 1,557 missing in action are engraved on tablets forming the wall.
A long reflecting pool sits in front of the Memorial with walkways on each side creating a central mall. Sculpted trees line the walkways near the reflecting pool, leading visitors to the ten large plots of graves.
Normandy American Cemetery like U.S. soil
Two American flags fly over the cemetery as you reach the first headstones. This 172 acres of land was provided by the government of France who granted use of the land to the U.S. government without charge as a permanent burial ground for American soldiers (operated and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission). I felt like I was walking on U.S. soil.
The headstones are made of white Lasa marble and most are in the shape of Latin crosses. They are precisely aligned and face west toward their native country. I sensed a calm serenity as I walked among the headstones, reflecting on the events that brought the servicemen to rest here. I took a short video as I stood among the graves.
I took time to read many of the headstones. It was interesting to read the names and home states of the soldiers. Many of the headstones record June 6, 1944, and the following days as the date of death. Among the graves are 307 unknown soldiers and 4 servicewomen. Three Medal of Honor recipients were buried here, including Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son. I felt such gratitude to all of those who served and sadness for the brutality experienced by so many.
A small round chapel in the middle of the graves is an inviting resting spot. It has a lovely black marble altar with the inscription: “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.” The beautiful ceiling mosaic shows America blessing her sons as they depart and a grateful France placing a laurel wreath on the dead.
After spending several hours visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, I was both moved by the emotion and proud of the way these soldiers are being honored. Even though the family members of these soldiers live far away, there are so many who visit this cemetery and remember what happened in 1944 and the importance of D-Day. It’s a beautiful tribute to the service and sacrifice of these fallen soldiers.