An examination of the American, German, and French Cemeteries
In June 2012, I had the privilege of being included in the 2nd annual Albert H. Small Student/Teacher Institute – Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom. Hosted by the National History Day organization and funded by Albert H. Small, 15 teachers from around the country were selected to choose one student to design a memorial website for a fallen hero from their state. Throughout the school-year, the teachers and students read a dozen books about World War II and the Normandy Invasion in preparation for the study tour. We spent a week at George Washington University enjoying lectures by preeminent scholars on the subject and visiting various sites in Washington DC. The following week we left for France. In addition to touring the key sites of Operation Overlord, we visited the American, German, and French cemeteries in Normandy.
The American Cemetery
Administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the American Cemetery inters 9,387 servicemen and women. The rows of white Italian marble headstones adorned with a Latin Cross or Star of David seem endless, while the names of the 1,557 servicemen whose bodies were never recovered line the Walls of the Missing on the cemetery grounds. The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach, the site of 2,400 casualties, the greatest number of any beach on D-Day. All the graves face west – looking towards America. The hero my student and I honored was 1st Lt. Brigido Gonzales from Nevada. It is a somber sight to see the seemingly endless rows of headstones. The American Cemetery is hallowed land where a memorial statue, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, and a reflecting pool briefly distract visitors from the rows of graves. Everything at the American Cemetery is formal and somber in appearance. Contemplating the huge human sacrifice of June 6, 1944, leaves an empty feeling in your gut and a fullness in your heart. It was personal for me. My father’s brother was a survivor of Normandy. He never recovered from the horror of the experience and he never discussed it. The effects were profound; he came home “shell-shocked” with a stutter and frequent panic attacks that eventually faded away, but the trauma never left. Today we would say that he suffered from PTSD.
The German Cemetery at Le Cambe
The German Cemetery is a sharp contrast to the American Cemetery. Dark and gloomy, it is the resting place of 21,222 soldiers, airmen, and sailors – many in mass graves. It is administered by the German War Graves Commission, but depends on donations to maintain this and five other German cemeteries in Normandy. A large tumulus (grave mound) topped with a large black basalt cross between two black basalt statues and groupings of smaller black basalt crosses decorate the cemetery; they provide a distinctly Teutonic feel to the space. The most notorious grave at the cemetery belongs to SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann, the infamous Panzer (tank) commander who is credited with the destruction of over 100 Allied tanks. For his attack on the Allies at Villers-Bocage – considered one of the most famous engagements in armored-warfare history – and his exploits on the Russian front, Wittmann has achieved a cult status. At Villers-Bocage, Wittmann is said to have destroyed up to 14 tanks, 15 transport vehicles, and two anti-tank guns in less than 15 minutes. The German propaganda machine made the most of this victory, and Wittmann received a promotion along with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Wittmann is believed to have been killed by Canadian tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment on August 8 as part of Operation Totalize. The interesting thing about Wittmann’s grave is that it is always adorned with flowers – one of very few at the German Cemetery. According to our tour guide, the identity of the individual who maintains the grave is unknown.
The Bayeux War Cemetery, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is the largest of the British Commonwealth cemeteries from World War II in France. It houses 4,144 Commonwealth graves, of which 338 are unidentified. Over 500 graves of other nationalities are located on the grounds, most are German. The Bayeux Memorial contains the names of over 1800 men whose remains were never recovered. Aesthetically, I liked the British Cemetery the best. It lacked the formality of the American Cemetery and the darkness and sternness of the German Cemetery. Assorted flowers beautify the rows of graves. There was a calmness that the other two cemeteries lacked. As I walked amongst the graves, a particular headstone caught my eye. The serviceman buried there – Corporal F.E.J. Day – had a name similar to my own. When I approached for a closer examination, I read the message his family left on the headstone: “PEACE, LAD, YOU PLAYED THE GAME.” As a parent, I could sense the torment his family endured having to sacrifice their treasured child due to the racial hatred and territorial ambition that a single man – Adolph Hitler – ignited in and forced upon the German people. Such a waste of Corporal Day’s life, Brigido Gonzalez’s life, and the lives of every serviceman and civilian – Allied or Axis – who died in World War II – the largest and deadliest conflict in world history.
Arguably, Normandy is the greatest amphibious action in world history. The statistics are overwhelming. Over 425,000 Allied and German troops perished between June 6 and August 30 when the Germans were driven across the Seine River. Allied casualties topped 210,000, of which 135,000 were American. Given the advances in modern technology, an operation of that magnitude could never be pulled off again. The British, Canadian, and American troops who parachuted into the French countryside or braved the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and in the days and weeks following, saved Europe from an evil, fascist regime bent on destroying democratic governments. We owe these heroes our lives.