Crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach, I’m standing in awe of the location of the eye of the D-Day storm. Behind me is a sea of 9,387 brilliant white-marble headstones radiating in memory of the Americans who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy to free Europe.
A walk on Omaha Beach is a powerful experience. One struggles to reconcile the quiet beauty of the setting with the horrible toll of that day. The highest casualty rates of the invasion occurred here on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allies launched the greatest military operation of its kind in the history of warfare. The human cost of the invasion is inescapable, but the D-Day Landings were the most vital part of the greater Operation Overlord to liberate Europe from years of German military occupation.
In this still-rural area, you get a sense of the boldness, complexity, and hardship of the undertaking: in just 12 days, Allied forces positioned massive concrete platforms and built roads nearly a mile long while floating on pontoons. Within six days, more than 300,000 troops, with all their equipment, had established a beachhead here.
The Normandy sites stretch out along 60 miles of narrow coastline. The beautiful view from this location was of strategic importance to the Germans, who kept watch over the English Channel from an observation bunker buried in the cliffside.
My husband and I paused on our tour to look inside at the casements hunkered inside four smashed German bunkers. They represent the only original coastal artillery remaining in place in the D-Day region. And we walked past the bomb craters that could only hint at the carnage and chaos that had occurred here.
The most heavily fortified German position on the coast was farther west, at Point du Hoc.
The Allies bombed it to smithereens before sending 300 handpicked US Army Rangers to assault its cliffs, using grappling hooks and ladders from London fire departments. They scaled the daunting cliffs of Pointe du Hoc as part of the D-Day assault.
Picnicking is forbidden at Pointe du Hoc — the bombed bunkers are considered gravesites.
The beaches are still referred to on maps and signposts by their invasion codenames: Omaha, Juno, Gold, Sword, and Utah. Streets near them are named after the units that fought there.
In military parlance, “D” stood for the day on which an operation was scheduled to take place. For the planners of the Operation Overlord, D-Day would be the day — whichever date — on which the landings would begin. Hence “D Minus One” was the eve of the invasion and “D Plus One” was the day after the landings. In the same way, “H-Hour meant the actual hour of the landings. On June 6 this varied between beaches according to the tide.
There Are Several Vast Cemeteries in the Area
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial with row upon row of identical white crosses and Stars of David are located in Colleville-sur-Mer.n The cemetery site covers 172 acres. Most lost their lives in the D-Day landings and the ensuing military operations in World War II. Included are graves of Army Air Corps crews shot down over France as early as 1942 and three American women.
On the Walls of the Missing, in a semicircular colonnade on the east side of the memorial, are inscribed 1,557 names. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. At the center is a 22’ bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”
Encircling the pedestal of the statue on the floor in bronze letters is the inscription:
MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF THE COMING OF THE LORD.
Meaning of the Memorial Stones
I personally was captivated by the pebbles left on numerous headstones, especially Jewish ones. It’s a Jewish custom to place a stone or pebble on a headstone to indicate that a person has visited the grave. Leaving a stone of remembrance is viewed as a way of continuing this tradition of commemoration. Placing flowers at a Jewish gravesite is not.
The more stones found at a grave, the more the deceased has been visited and remembered by others. An example would be the scene in Schindler’s List. In the movie, the people whom Oskar Schindler saved visited his grave and honored him by placing stones upon it.
The tradition dates back to Jacob’s sons in the Bible placing rocks atop their mother Rachel’s grave.
June 2014 marked the 70th D-Day Anniversary. Adjacent to the D-Day Museum, on Southsea Common, a multi-faith Drumhead Service was held. It was attended by US President Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, and over 100, 000 members of the public.
June 6, 2019, promises to be another noteworthy and commemorative occasion on the 75th D-Day Anniversary. If you go, no matter your faith, consider taking a pocketful of pebbles.
The Rocks Atop the Stones at Arlington National Cemetery
As visitors walk through Arlington National Cemetery en route to the Tomb of the Unknowns or John F. Kennedy’s grave, they often ask why rocks are atop tombstones.
Simply restated, it’s a Jewish tradition. Rocks serve as a reminder of one’s visit to a grave much like Christians leave flowers.
The Biblical Book of Joshua, Chapter 4, and The Memorial Stones
v 1 When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here, out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood. Carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’ ”
v 6-7. . . so that this may be a sign among you.
When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord.
v7 So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.
v22 Then you shall let your children know: They crossed on dry ground so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and . . . so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.
God’s work in our lives — it’s good to remember!
Psalm 18:2 The Lord is my rock.