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Manteca veteran recall visit to Normandy

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Manteca veteran recall visit to Normandy

The graves of American soldiers at Normandy.

Photo by Lloyd Schoop/

POSTED June 4, 2012 8:15 p.m.

While viewing the 6,500 crosses representing the lives of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Not Forgotten Memorial Day event at Woodward Park, it reminded me of the unforgettable sight of 9,386 cross at the cemetery near Normandy, France. The crosses at Normandy represent the number of U.S. troops killed at Utah and Omaha beaches during the invasion of France.

This Wednesday, June 6, 2012 will be the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landing and the battle of the beaches at Normandy, France. A few years ago, my wife Betty and I were on a European cruise. The ship anchored at the port of Le Havre, France. This port is the gateway to Normandy and the five beaches that were invaded during the battle for Normandy. While on tour, we took notes and read brochures. There is so much to tell about that bloody battle at the Normandy beaches. This is our attempt to summarize.

The American Army was responsible for the invasion of Utah and Omaha beaches. The British Army was responsible for the invasion of Gold and Sword beaches. The Canadian Army was responsible for the invasion of Juno beach with some help from the British Army. Our tour guide said that the two beaches the Americans invaded were toughest because the Germans had their greatest number of resources there to defend against an invasion.

The Germans thought that Patton would be the General to lead the invasion of France because General Eisenhower sent him as a decoy to the coast of northern England, several miles from the actual launching site. The plan was to make the Germans think that the invasion would be at Calais, France and not Normandy. This trick worked because the Germans sent a huge amount of troops and equipment from Normandy to Calais. This helped to weaken the German military at the Normandy site. But don’t think for a moment that the battle for victory was easy. It was bloody.

It was absolutely essential to provide the allied expeditionary forces with supplies and equipment. Otherwise, any attempt at landing in France would be doomed to failure. Beach landing craft like LCT’s, alone could not handle this task. Prefabricated harbors were needed to speed up a continuous flaw of supplies to service all five beaches. In June 1943, one year before D-Day, England started building bombardons, phoenix caissons, block ships, quays and floating jetties, all needed to anchor and build prefab harbors. Some remnants of a harbor are still visible on the beach and in the water.

On D-Day June 6th, 1944, an armada of 6,800 warships of many types and sizes crossed the English Channel. A total of 156,205 land forces on the ships were deployed. The sky was filled with 11,590 aircraft and 3,500 gliders. When the German military saw what was coming they were shocked. When the military hit the beaches the battle was bloody and the casualties were high. They needed supplies and heavy equipment soon.

Two weeks after D-Day, about 212 of the phoenix caissons, which form the main break water for the harbor, had been anchored in their final positions. Unfortunately, a huge storm destroyed the first completed prefab harbor on June 17th. The troops needed equipment soon. The British concentrated their efforts and were able to complete a second American harbor at Omaha Beach and a third British harbor at Arromanches, France. These harbors opened the door to unloading tons of supplies and equipment and building additional harbors. At this point, American casualties continued to grow.

The first three months following the Normandy invasion, the United States had so many casualties, about 13,800, that the military buried the dead in nine different cemeteries near Omaha and Utah Beaches with two additional cemeteries a few miles inland. After the war, all the dead were moved into two cemeteries. The bodies of 9, 386 soldiers were buried in the American cemetery at Colleville-St-Laurent overlooking Omaha Beach. Of this amount, 4 are women, 307 of them have never been identified, a father and son lie side by side and in 33 cases two brothers are buried next to each other. Brothers Robert and Preston Niland were featured in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” There are 1,557 names of the missing and unaccounted servicemen inscribed on a wall monument inside the Normandy cemetery. A second cemetery is located at Saint James, which is several miles inland. The bodies of 4,410 soldiers are buried there, 97 of which were never identified.  In twenty places, two brothers lie side by side.

Several years after the war ended, relatives of many of these dead soldiers were allowed to have the body of their loved ones shipped and reburied in the United States. Two thirds of the dead were repatriated to the United States. Even if the body is moved, the military will leave the Christian grave marker “The Cross” and/or the Jewish marker “The Star of David” in their original place at the cemeteries.

France conceded 173 acres at Normandy to the United States. This cemetery occupies 37 acres and the rest of the land includes a section of beach and a forest of trees surrounding the cemetery. France granted the United States similar rights of the land in and around the smaller cemetery at Saint James.

At 16 cemeteries 20,845 British troops are buried. At two cemeteries 5,007 Canadian troops are buried. At one cemetery 650 polish troops are buried. At five cemeteries 58,172 German troops are buried.

On May 8, 1945, eleven months after the Normandy invasion, the war in Europe ended.

Betty and I ate lunch inside the clubhouse of a French golf course overlooking Omaha Beach. Maybe Betty and I are too emotional but somehow, it just didn’t seem right to have a golf course on this hallowed ground. If you ever get a chance to visit the beaches, the museum, and the two American cemeteries we urge you to do so. Take some facial tissue with you.

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