Almost exactly 75 years after the June 6, 1944 invasions on the beaches of Normandy, Dan and I arrived in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer on the northern French coast to spend the weekend. The timing of our visit was intentionally planned to coincide with the weeklong program of events aimed at remembering and honoring the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought and died in Operation Overlord, more commonly known as D-Day. While we were not in Normandy on the 6th of June, in arriving just two days after, we were still able to experience the commemorations and visit the battlefields where the course of World War II was changed after a successful Allied invasion.
After our five-hour drive from Brussels, we reached the tiny village of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, which we selected for its close proximity to Omaha Beach – only a 10 minute walk or 5 minute bike ride. On our way to the Airbnb, we passed charming cottages and homes with fences adorned with strings of miniature French, American, British, and Canadian flags. Even better, upon arrival at the Airbnb, our host, Dominique, greeted us warmly by introducing us to his family who were gathered on the front lawn enjoying the peaceful Saturday evening. Dominique was dressed for the occasion in a D-Day Anniversary t-shirt and matching hat. After getting a bottle of locally made cider for us from his garage, he showed us around the apartment rental.
A booklet of papers with the face of a soldier on the cover caught our eye as we stood at the kitchen table. Dominique, seeing our interest, lit up as he called for his brother to come join us. Alain entered the room with a bag in hand, from which he removed a helmet with the name Mc Atee written in capital letters on the inside. The two of them then shared with us the story of Sgt. William Mc Atee, an American GI whose story the French family had only discovered in more recent years following his landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The story starts with the discovery of Mc Atee’s helmet by the grandfather of Dominique and Alain. That helmet sat in the family’s attic for many years until the late father of Dominique and Alain took an interest in its origins. When he passed, Alain commenced what would be a long search for its owner, known only by the faded name inscribed on the inside of the helmet.
Through various channels of research, this family tracked down the records of Mc Atee whereupon they learned that he had survived the Normandy invasion, only to be subsequently killed in Germany a few months later. They had assembled a packet in both French and English that explained the research that had been carried out since 1987, when the helmet was found in the attic, through June 2014. Their persistence paid off and not only did they identify the owner and his story, but also were able to get in touch with surviving family. The packet included copies of letters obtained from government records that had been sent by Mc Atee’s wife and mother to request the transportation of his body back to the US. It contained photos documenting the process from the memorial in France dedicated to Mc Atee’s division, to the family meeting a veteran from Mc Atee’s regiment and company on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary. What struck me was the family’s attachment to the American soldier they had never met and their relentless pursuit to understand not only who he was, but also honor him by sharing his story with their visitors. It was a welcome unlike any other we had received by an Airbnb host.
Feeling inspired by the family’s commitment to honoring those who fought for their country’s freedom, we decided that a visit to Omaha Beach was an appropriate first stop for the weekend. On bikes borrowed from Dominique, we pedaled to the opposite end of town past the replica American campsite and re-enactors decked out in Army fatigue to the relatively peaceful and deserted sandy shore. Over the course of the weekend, we saw countless individuals and groups dressed in period-specific uniforms and civilian clothing driving military vehicles from the same period. From what we understood, there are many re-enactors in attendance at the anniversary celebrations as the program includes re-enactments and musical performances from the era. It’s also not unusual for people attending to dress for the occasion.
As we arrived in the early evening and spent some time walking on the beach, it was already after 8:00 PM when we started to seek out dinner. Given the limited number of restaurants in the neighborhood and their more restrictive dining hours, we resorted to heading back to the Airbnb to quickly transition to our car and head towards Bayeux. A larger city in the region, Bayeux has more dining options, which we were aware of from an earlier visit. Sitting in our car frantically searching for options on our phones before driving away, Dominique and his brother came out to offer assistance in locating a good restaurant. I can’t reiterate enough how helpful this family was! Their recommendation of a pizza and calzone place that served local cider was fantastic and the walk through the quiet streets of Bayeux after our meal was the perfect end to the first night.
Despite the damp June morning, our Sunday started in a familiar way for us – a run. We headed down to Omaha Beach where tourists and re-enactors alike were scattered along the water’s edge. Military planes flew overhead irregularly as we headed west along the sidewalk lining the beach. When the sidewalk ended at the far end of the beach, we stepped down to the sand and continued our jog where the tide had receded. Rain clouds moved in, but before turning back, we paused next to the water to reflect on the tranquility of the beach on this particular day.
Making our way back to the apartment, we noted that a bi-lingual group had gathered to honor military nurses with speeches and songs in front of the Omaha Beach monument, and as we climbed the last hill to the apartment, a fleet of vehicles rattled past us.
Our first official stop of the day was to Sainte-Mère-Église to watch the parachute drops on the country-side, similar to the descent of paratroopers on the evening preceding D-Day. Seeing as we got a later start than intended, the drive did involve some heavy traffic as cars jostled for parking within the confines of the small town. With our car finally parked in a field turned make-shift parking lot, we headed towards the commotion in the tiny but busy town center. Seeing that many of the restaurants were either closed as usual on Sunday or were too busy, we settled for a take-away baguette lunch complimented with cider.
We nabbed seats at an outdoor seating area and were able to witness from a distance, a group of veterans passing by on their way to the city center. They received standing ovations as they passed the busy streets and our brief glimpse was a reminder of the true purpose of the commemorations.
Passing under the American, Canadian, French, and British flags and banners, we made our way to small town center, which hosts the iconic church and pinnacle where an American paratrooper landed during his descent into the town (there is a replica paratrooper affixed to the church to this day). As the first village in Normandy liberated by the American forces, Sainte-Mère-Église throws an impressive celebration complete with live music, BBQ stands, and plenty of outdoor seating. We walked around to experience the atmosphere and then decided to make our way back towards Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.
Back at the Airbnb, we opted for the bikes and unintentionally ended up on an off-road ride through the forest as we hurried to make it to the American Cemetery entrance ahead of close. Hindered by muddy trails requiring us to walk our bikes, we didn’t make it in time to enter the American Cemetery. Instead we walked our bikes through yet another steep forest path and stopped at a resort for a cider break. Our bike back through the sand was by no means easy but we made it to dinner without having to scramble for last minute plans.
Unfortunately, a steady rain moved in and we decided to forgo the evening block party and fireworks. Before calling it a night, we were treated to a beautiful and peaceful sunset over the beach. It was a fitting end to a weekend of remembrance and expressions of gratitude intermingled with celebrations of freedom.
Our experience in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer was largely shaped by the generous welcome we received from our hosts. Their hospitality and openness was representative of the larger communal attitude we felt as we visited the various towns and monuments while visiting Normandy. It was an exceptional experience commemorating an important anniversary in the company of both foreigners and locals who were all in attendance for a singular reason that should not be forgotten or go unacknowledged.