A solid night of sleep was refreshing and so was a most delicious hotel breakfast with plenty of delicious breads, pastries, coffee and meats.
We shoved off promptly at 8 a.m. and headed to an area of Normandy that was occupied by our soldier Virgil Tangborn. It is the town of Ste-Mere-Eglise and site of the 82nd Airborne landings and the first town to be liberated in France. Something very striking in the town was a cathedral featuring a paratrooper's parachute dangling from a church spire complete with a mannequin paratrooper beneath. This paratrooper is in the honor of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and represents Sergeant John Steele whose parachute caught on the church steeple. He hung there for several hours and watched Company F get slaughtered by German soldiers. He was captured briefly but released when the 505th Airborne captured the town and staved off a German counterattack from all four directions. This enabled the paratroopers to hold the town for several days keeping German forces from reaching Utah Beach, allowing the United States forces to fortify their stronghold.
The success of this battle allowed our soldier Virgil Tangborn to advance from his own landing on Utah Beach and advance inland. He died very close to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and that was where he was first buried before being moved to the American Cemetery in Normandy. Next we visited the Musee Airborne which is home to numerous artifacts of the paratroopers. It also has a Douglas C-47 transport plane and a Waco CG-4A glider.
Afterwards, we drive a few miles southwest of town to the tiny hamlet known as La Fiere, home to the La Fiere Bridge. Matti had a wave of emotion rush over here because, as she and I chatted, it's very likely that Virgil Tangborn crossed this bridge a day or two before his death, perhaps even that very day. The bridge crosses over the Merderet River and was first secured the morning of June 6 by a company of paratroopers who held it against fierce German resistance. The commanding officer was 1st Lt. John Dolan who, when asked about the possibility of a retreat, "If we've got to die, I don't know a better spot than this." The job of the U.S. forces was to secure the bridge and western end of the causeway from Utah Beach but it took until June 9 to complete that job.
Our next stop was a big one....Utah Beach. It's where our soldier first entered France and its where thousands of soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division landed on June 6th, D-Day. The Utah Beach Museum is right there on the beach and besides having a fantastic introductory movie, they also have Christian LeVaufre who is the son of Henri LeVaufre, a friend of our soldier's brother and a writer who lived through the liberation of Normandy as a child, in the town of Periers. Henri was instrumental in the construction of the memorial to the 90th Infantry which is housed in Periers and on our list of stops perhaps on Sunday. Christian gave us a special tour of the museum including a "inside the roped off area" tour of the Martin B-26G Marauder Bomber they have on display.
Utah Beach was a very poignant place to visit and it was amazing to see that expanse of beach and envision what went on there, and was still going on there, 69 years ago. Just the sheer distance from the sea to the edge of the beach is amazing, to think about running that while under fire is something else. It's hard to explain still how it felt to be there and to look at it all knowing that it looks very similar now to what it did back then. Matti and I both packaged up some beach sand to take home with us as a souvenir. I plan on giving mine to my kids as an invitation to venture to Normandy someday so they can see all this with their own eyes and learn the same lessons about sacrifice, freedom and responsibility. There's more to say about Utah Beach but we'll both let our thoughts percolate before saying more. Nothing crazy, but actually walking across that sand (or in Matti's case, running across it and climbing up the hill where the German defenses would have been) does something to you that requires time to process. Powerful experiences that's for sure.
Our touring portion of the day ended at Pointe du Hoc where the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed the 100 foot cliffs to take out the German artillery battery. One of the most impressive parts of this, besides the spectacular sea view, was the massive bomb craters that still exist. Allied bombers passed over this point frequently and their "footprints" are still there, some of them 20 to 30 feet deep and 100 feet across.
Dinner was a cultural experience at a very French restaurant. Our friend Seamus (student from Oklahoma) speaks French and has served as our official interpreter. He helped order and chatted up our French bus driver (originally from Morocco) who we all invited to eat with us. Matti and I were in a group of nine that went to the Au Trou Normand Restaurant where you quite literally sit in a booth situated within a massive wine barrel. Matti and several other students showed off their Spanish speaking skills while Seamus showed off his French speaking skills. The food was delicious just like it has been everywhere. Matti and I are enjoying every bit of it!