Writing about spending 24 hours along the Normandy coast visiting the D-Day beaches shouldn’t be hard. It’s been less than a year since I visited. I have my original trip itinerary, not to mention a very detailed journal from the trip.
So why have I constantly been running my hands through my hair all afternoon, a habit I have when I’m stressed or deep in thought about something? This isn’t a simple “how to spend a day in location X” blog post for me. I’ve already written a nearly 600-word unpublished post on why the Allied invasion of Normandy is so important to me. It’s saved and might come out later this year for the 69-year anniversary of the June 6, 1944, day that ushered in the beginning of the end of World War II.
But I’ll give you the quick rundown. I was a child who loved to read about history, specifically military history. World War II was my favorite theme and my favorite movie discovered sometime in the 10- to 12-year-old range was “The Longest Day,” a fabulous all-star cast movie from the early ’60s that puts Cornelius Ryan’s brilliant book by the same name on the silver screen. The 1959 book tells the story of those crucial 24 hours through the eyes, words and actions of hundreds of Americans, Brits, French and German civilians and soldiers.
The book also served as the guide for my original trip plan, one that saw us hitting our first site at about 1 p.m. on a Tuesday and our last site at about 11 a.m. the following day. So not even 24 hours, here is my plan of attack for the quickest version of The Longest Day.
Day 1: Tuesday Arrive at Omaha Beach at 1 p.m.
Traveling with my wife and 5-year-old son, we spent most of Monday and Tuesday morning in Giverny visiting the wonderful sites of the village the artist Claude Monet called home. As quickly became our custom on this trip we were late getting on the road. But once driving from Giverny it is an easy two-hour journey on a toll motorway.
First Stop: Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery
You’re familiar with the scene if you’ve watched “Saving Private Ryan.” The opening and closing of the film is set in the cemetery, where more than 9,000 American military dead are buried.
I’ve visited numerous American Civil War cemeteries as well as Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. So I already had a feeling of how I would feel at a military cemetery. But as we exited the visitor’s center into the chilly gusty wind blowing in from the English Channel, the emotion of where I was standing hit me.
In front of me and below the small cliff was the wide swath of sand that became known as Omaha Beach, where American men were mowed down trying to get to the bottom of the cliff. and just to my left I could see the white crosses and Stars of David marking the final resting place of those soldiers.
We walked down the long windy path to the beach, where I was mesmerized at knowing what had happened many years ago on that sand I was standing in.
We quickly made our way back up and only briefly walked through the cemetery. We had a tight schedule to stick to and I just wasn’t sure I wanted to have the conversation about what we were looking at with my son. He of course did make note of all of this, but his innocence remained just that. His comment as we headed back out to the car was along the lines of, “I don’t think I want to be a solider for Halloween.” Good enough for us, we told him.
So we quickly were off to our west, briefly making a couple of stops along Omaha Beach, which innocently enough now seems to be more of a beach vacation spot. But maybe that’s really not all that odd considering that’s what it was before the war.
2:30 to 3:30 Pointe du Hoc:
U.S. Army Rangers scaled the high cliffs here to silence monstrous guns that could destroy the forces landing just to the east at Omaha Beach and to the west on Utah Beach. This is also a great spot for amazing views of the coast and English Channel.
Of course, the Rangers weren’t there for the view. And neither were the Germans.
For kids, this is a great spot. The Allied bombers, in an effort to “soften” the gun emplacements, bombed the heck out of everything here. What did that leave? Some really cool bomb craters to run down into.
My son and I loved it. But a word of warning: Be careful if you are wearing slick-bottomed shoes. I slipped on my backside three times.
4 to 6: Sainte Mare Eglise
I’m not sure about the food situation in Normandy. I do recall seeing a couple of restaurants in back of Omaha Beach. But we were rushed and having a child in the car we kept following the signs to McDonald’s (literally, they were spaced for miles starting back near the cemetery). We stopped at this lone McDonald’s in Maisy.
After a quick bite in the car we continued on to Sainte Mere Eglise, a little French village that as a fan of “The Longest Day” holds a special place in my heart. The airborne soldiers were scattered for miles along Cherboug. About 30 of them came down in and around the Sainte Mere Eglise square where the Germans opened fire on them as they still fell from the sky. It’s an intense moment in the movie.
Private John Steele’s parachute got caught on the church steeple, and he remained there for about two hours playing dead before being cut down and briefly being taken prisoner by the Germans.
We made a quick visit to the Musee Airborne. I’m not sure how much adults who don’t care about military history would enjoy the museum. It has a glider used in the landings, as well as several other military vehicles, weapons and uniforms.
After a hectic day of just barely squeezing in all the sights I had in mind, we drove about 30 minutes to the coast to Utah Beach, where we had a great inn reserved for the night. The Ivy House, located near the village of Sainte Mare Du Mont, is a cozy self-service inn run by a lovely couple and their children.
Andy and Emma are perfect hosts. I couldn’t get enough of the conversations I had with Andy. He’s British, but along with his French wife opened the Ivy House in the past couple of years. Andy’s knowledge of the D-Day landings is superb.
After packing up and having another lovely conversation with Andy we quickly drove over to Utah Beach.
I so badly wanted to go to the museum there but it opened later and we just didn’t have the time as we were driving into Paris today. We did take time to walk the beach, where a number of German bunkers and gun placements are still there.
If You Go:
American Cemetery at Omaha Beach
Parking and the visitor’s center are free. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cemetery sits on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel, east of St. Laurent-sur-Mer and northwest of Bayeux in Colleville-sur-Mer, 170 miles west of Paris. The cemetery may be reached by automobile via highway A-13 to Caen, then N-13 to Bayeux and Formigny, continuing on D-517 toward St. Laurent-sur-Mer and D-514 to Colleville-sur-Mer, where signs mark the entrance to the cemetery.
Pointe Du Hoc:
I have to be honest: I don’t know opening hours. I couldn’t find them before our visit and can’t find them now. I know there is a visitor’s center there, although I never stepped foot inside. Parking is easy and signposted off the D514, about eight miles west of Omaha Beach and the cemetery.
Airborne Museum at Sainte Mare Eglese
Open daily 9 a.m. to 6:45 p.m.; minimal cost
Musee du Debarquement Utah Beach
50480 Sainte Marie du Mont
Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; minimal cost