By Joe Darby
I’ve written over the last few weeks about trips I made as a New Orleans newspaper reporter, ranging from a quick working trip to an airbase in Italy, to exploring Argentina, to covering a terrible earthquake in Guatemala.
Today I’d like to share some wonderful but emotional memories about a trip I took to England and France with the emphasis being on the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy.
It was 1983 and the following year would be the 40th anniversary of D-Day, when American, British and Canadian troops invaded France on June 6, 1944, to begin the final military push that would end in victory over Nazi Germany in Europe.
A New Orleans travel agency, which would organize tour groups to France in 1984, put the press trip together. A small group of reporters flew into London then we were put on a mini-bus for a ride down to Portsmouth, the city that houses Great Britain’s largest naval base. Also, many of the D-Day ships left out of Portsmouth to cross the channel.
In Portsmouth, we were treated to a fine dinner in a 16th century inn and also toured the HMS Trafalgar, Lord Nelson’s original flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In that battle the British decisively defeated the French and Spanish navies, ending any hope Napoleon may have had of invading and conquering England. It was amazing to walk the same decks that those British sailors had so many years ago, while manning their guns to save jolly old England.
The next day we took a ferry ride across the English Channel, or as the French call it, La Manche. (You don’t think the French would call that important seaway after the English, do you?)
We explored the British and American landing beaches, including Bloody Omaha, where entrenched German soldiers up on a bluff, inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans down on the beach. Through bravery and perseverance the Americans managed to take the high ground by the end of the day.
We also visited Pointe du Hoc, a sheer cliff that US Rangers attacked by climbing up ropes and defeating the German soldiers on top. I walked into one of the German concrete bunkers, which still exist. It was quite dark inside and I had a sense of pure evil that literally sent chills down my spine. Needless to say, I quickly exited that ominous structure By the way, I wasn’t the only one in my group to have that feeling.
Now, to the piece de resistence of the entire trip — a visit to the American Cemetery on the bluffs above Omaha Beach. In a beautiful, park-like surrounding, there are row after row after row of white crosses, along with occasional Stars of David. Each marker bears only the soldier’s name, the date of his death and his home state.
I believe that one cannot be in such a setting without wondering about the lives of those young men, whose existences were cruelly cut short. I have had the privilege of interviewing many World War II veterans, often at their unit’s reunions in New Orleans. No matter what brave deeds they performed in the war, those men invariably told me that the “real heroes” were those who did not come home.
Now, here I was, in the midst of thousands of them who did not come home. I was surrounded by real heroes. And I was so grateful to them, who had sacrificed all.
We stayed a night or two (I forget — it was 35 years ago after all) in a lovely 1700s chateau in Normandy. I wondered about the noble family that had lived there 200 years before. Had they been nice or mean? Or, probably, both at times. How had they fared during the French Revolution? Had they lost their heads to the guillotine or had they escaped France to another country? When you love history and are curious, you can let your imagination run wild.
Not really important, but I want to say I was introduced to a great beer in the bar at that chateau — Kronenbourg 1664. It’s brewed in the French city of Strasbourg, which is near the German border — hence it’s German sounding name. It’s hard to find in the states, but once in a while I luck out and find some.
After our Normandy tour, we caught a channel ferry back to Southhampton, England, another major D-Day port of embarkation. By the way, a channel ferry is nothing like a ferry as we think of them here in the states. It’s much more like a sea-going ship.
After our group was returned to London, I paid for a few days in that great city on my own, visiting some of the more wonderful sites, including the magnificent Tower of London, as well as the Imperial War Museum, one of the finest military museums in the world.
Those days in England and France passed all to soon and before I knew it I was back in New Orleans, writing of my experiences. I may still have the clippings in a box somewhere in the garage, but I’m not sure.
Unlike memories of the Guatemala earthquake trip, my recollections of the sojourn to England and France are nothing but pleasant. And I do cherish them.