//end of the world//
The Normandy Beaches: Swimsuit Edition
Instead of the blood-splattered bodies I had always imagined, bodies slathered in tanning oil scattered the Normandy Beaches when I visited in August. Smiley children bounced around playing paddleball and building sandcastles. I spotted picnickers drinking wine out of plastic cups, teenage girls flipping through magazines, and smokers flinging cigarette butts at the sand. Mothers in floppy hats clutched straw bags packed with sunscreen, rainbow towels, and water bottles while their squealing kids sent sand flying as they raced toward the water. The soldiers who battled at Normandy on D-Day in 1944 did not leave behind any footprints in the sand.
Honoring Operation Overlord happens in three major locations near, but not on, the beaches: La Musée du Débarquement at Arromanches, the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and the inland town of St. Lô. Each location memorializes a different aspect of D-Day, each one drawing in different types of visitors for a unique memorial experience. British and Canadian tourists flock to the museum where the exhibits glorify the military feats of the Normandy invasion. Americans flood en masse to the graves of the more than nine thousand three hundred dead Americans buried at Colleville-sur-Mer. And French families tour the town of St. Lô, which is inhabited by eerily fresh ruins from the fighting that preceded the town’s liberation from the Germans on July 18, 1944. But Omaha Beach, Juno Beach, Gold Beach, Utah Beach and Sword Beach – the landing spots of the largest, and arguably most impressive, amphibious invasions of all time – are peaceful vacationlands.
I stopped first at La Musée du Débarquement where I learned everything there is to know about Mulberry prefabricated concrete harbors. The museum taught me about measurements, materials, and military strategy in impressive detail, aided by a showcase of beaten-up supplies that once belonged to the Allied soldiers’ at Normandy. Their belts, jackets, and wrinkly handkerchiefs are on display next to the museum’s main attraction: a toy-soldier diorama of the events of June 6, 1944. Though miniature marines do not do D-Day justice, my visit to the museum was not for naught. In the details that I imagine only make sense to engineers, I gained perspective on how dauntingly difficult Operation Overlord was for all the soldiers tasked with building gargantuan floating docks from scratch. Looking at the beaches as they stand today – so typically beachy and bereft of artifacts – I could never have guessed the magnitude of what those engineer-for-a-day soldiers accomplished in 1944.
A second memorial site is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. There are one hundred and seventy-two acres of tombstones shaped like crosses and stars of David organized in long, straight lines and silence reigns supreme in the tiny chapel and on the cemetery grounds. A striking one thousand five hundred fifty-seven names of Americans who died in the Normandy campaign but whose bodies were never found are inscribed on towering white marble walls, engulfed in rosebushes which lead the way toward velvety green grass and what is designed to look like an infinity of shiny tombstones. The sight is sad, but what cemetery isn’t? I was standing on American owned soil, amidst American made tombstones, and surrounded by American names; but I was not brought back to the American experience of June 1944 and could really have been anywhere on the planet remembering the deaths of any large group of people from any country at any period of time. I wandered off the grounds, peered over the cliff, and looked down at the bronzing bodies below on Omaha Beach and wondered if they even knew about the dead soldiers drifting now along the ocean floor.
Inland, there is a third layer of memory to be found in the town of St. Lô. As a memorial of the terrible losses the French suffered on D-Day, the town is as artificial as the museum and the cemetery. The French keep St. Lô’s state of destruction in perfect condition, eternalizing “The Capital of the Ruins,” in the words of Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Two structures stand out from the ruins: the Notre Dame Church which was nearly the only building standing after ninety-five percent of the town was destroyed during the fighting in Normandy, and the France-United States Memorial Hospital which was funded entirely by the United States after the town was freed from the Germans. The church and the hospital loom mournfully over everything that remains un-built, and there is no visiting St. Lô without mourning along with them. But the town is a manufactured memory of what happened at D-Day, as fake as the set of a movie. The unnatural ruins of St. Lô only further accentuate the near-total lack of ruins on the beaches themselves, causing one to wonder why the actual battlefields have no memorials when St. Lô seems to have nothing but memorials. The sea swallowed whatever remained on the beaches after the fighting – humans and objects alike – so with the exception of a few chunks of dock that still stand, the beaches are bare and leave the imagination free to imagine the worst. Faced with nothing, I was forced to envision something – to memorialize where no memorial had been made for me.
Fifty years after D-Day, England, France, Canada and the United States did exactly that. Sending more than one thousand troops to parachute onto the beaches in a dangerous and difficult reenactment exercise, the countries were inventing a memorial on the beaches where none exists. Dignitaries and laypeople from all over the world gathered together at Omaha Beach to watch the landings. President Ronald Reagan addressed the crowds and said: “We smell the ocean and feel the sea sickness. We can see the looks on the soldiers’ faces – the fear, the anguish, and the uncertainty of what lay ahead. We can feel the strength and courage of the men who took the first steps through the tide to what must surely have looked like instant death.” The President brought 1944 to life with the ocean smells and the sandy tides, the most effective reminders of D-Day, which no monument could mimic. In lieu of a permanent memorial, Reagan creatively crafted a memory for the onlookers using the only resources he had: the beach. I did the same.
For me, it was the bikinis and beach balls. From within the multiple offshore sites of memory came multiple layers of meaning that related directly to the beaches: sweaty sunbathers were sweaty soldiers and grand umbrellas were gliding parachutes. Even if they hadn’t the slightest clue, today’s happy and peaceful beachgoers were constructing a memorial that cannot fit the pages of a guidebook. To remember what happened at the Normandy Beaches was to create something concrete out of intangible parts: high and low tides, sand that slips through your fingers, and fading tanlines. Perhaps a memorial of the imagination will be more permanent than any structure. After all, sandcastle cities – solid for a time – will always crumble.
Photo by the author, “Ce n’est qu’un plage.”
\\ LILY WILF is a sophomore at Barnard College and Layout Editor and Deputy Literary and Arts Editor for The Current. She can be reached at email@example.com.