Utah Beach & Sainte-Mère-Église: Countdown to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day
The next morning (see previous post for our experience at Arromanches), we woke up and made the 45-minute drive from Arromanches to Utah Beach. Making this drive really opened our eyes to the sheer expanse of the D-Day landing. To think that more than 100,000 Allied paratroopers and ground forces had landed on this 10 mile stretch of beach blew my mind.
We arrived at the beach and found memorials everywhere, recognizing various divisions and battalions that fought at Utah Beach.
We were surprised to see a restored carrier displaying model soldiers as we approached the walkway to the beach. This really brought to life the wreckage that we had seen the night before at Gold Beach in Arromanches. I could envision thousands of soldiers coming in on those vessels, waiting to storm the seemingly impossible beaches.
We walked onto the beach, and surprisingly it looked like any other beach. The debris, shrapnel, and ruins that were left after D-Day had been cleared out. We were left to our imaginations to envision all that had happened here.
After walking the beach, we continued on to the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église. This museum was dedicated to the stories of the paratroopers of D-Day, complete with stories, memorabilia, planes, transport machines, and interactive exhibits. It was a great initial launch into the history of D-Day for this novice.
As we toured the museum, the stories brought the paratrooper experience to life. D-Day preparations took meticulous planning, and they had hoped to launch the attack days/weeks before June 6, but the weather had been so bad they postponed. They wanted the best weather conditions possible for the soldiers jumping out of planes and directly heading into battle. It finally got to a point that they felt waiting any longer would be detrimental to the mission, so they launched surprisingly in less than ideal weather. The wind caused the paratroopers to land up to 5 miles from their ideal landing zones, right into enemy fire.
One such village, Sainte-Mère-Église, was occupied by the Germans and were waiting for the paratroopers. A small town just inland of the beaches, paratrooper after paratrooper landed in and around the town, most scattered about from their platoons. They landed in trees, some were shot in the air, a few landed, and one soldier by the name of John Steele landed on the steeple of a chapel. His parachute got caught and he couldn't get down. He tried cutting his parachute restraints and was shot in the foot by a German soldier. In an effort to stay alive until he could decide how to get down, he played dead...for hours...with a bullet in the foot. He was finally spotted by German soldiers, cut down, and taken prisoner. He managed to escape and make it to the front lines in time to evacuate with the other soldiers back to Britain.
We continued through the museum and walked around the village to take it all in. We looked over at the chapel nearby and saw a parachute attached to a dummy on the steeple. This may seem silly to some, but it really struck me. The people of Sainte-Mère-Église found John Steele's story so powerful and the sacrifice of the soldiers so inspiring that they have since commemorated he and the other paratroopers by this reminder on their steeple. It was truly moving to look over and see a reminder of the story I'd just read in the museum.
We continued to walk through the town, trying to imagine what it must have been like to be a paratrooper on that fateful day. Sainte-Mère-Église ended up being one of the first towns liberated in the efforts of D-Day. The scenery and stories of this small village are astounding, and I am forever grateful to have seen it with my own eyes.