Guest post by author Ken Murray
I wrote this in 2010, the very next day after our visit to the American cemetery in Normandy, France. I cut out the first three pages. Can't make it any shorter or you'll miss the emotion of the visit. It went viral, I guess. The French tour company asked if they could put it on their website.
We were centered above a gentle downward sloping of the massive gravesite, eyes swept across the rectangular reflection pool to the tallest twin flagpoles I’d ever seen where our stars and stripes fluttered above the first 5,000 white marble crosses that co-mingled in your vision to form a misty sea of brightly sun-lit sadness.
There was a small circular chapel at mid-point after which the second sea of 4,400 more crosses were silent testimony to this field of honor. Once down and off the pathways, we wandered randomly through and among the crosses, stopping to read two or three, and then continuing on. All of them had similar markings; first line, the soldier’s name, second line, rank and unit, and third line, birth-state and date of death.
Then we heard the sound, the distinctive growl, low at first, of powerful piston aircraft engines, getting louder each second. Into our vision came two single engine WWII fighter planes. They roared over us at about four hundred feet flying in formation. One out front. The second one above and back, just off the other pilot’s right wing tip.
Their skins shone like polished chrome in the early afternoon sun, impossible to make out insignia or origin. Once across the cemetery they banked in unison sharply right over the English Channel heading north, following the French coastline.
As we meandered further, a large side covered golf cart rolled down the wider central asphalt walkway. When I asked, the guide turned to me and said, “That’s a family who’ve come to visit their lost soldier.”
The vehicle stopped at a designated row. Siblings of the soldier, their children and grandchildren stepped out of the cart and walked in across the green grass that was kept like a carpet, perhaps eighty graves or so, to a particular white cross, numbered on its side at ground level.
Once there the relatives all knelt down, some touching or holding on to the arms of the cross. One relative remained standing and from our vantage point, some one hundred feet away, he appeared to be speaking, but his voice was not audible to us. David told me, “That’s really tough to witness. He’s probably reading a letter, a sixty-six year old letter from that soldier to his family. The young man’s last words.”
Beth was ahead of us and I tried to call out and inform her. I paused, turned to our guide and said, “You tell her.” I couldn’t get the words out, my eyes misting up, throat thickening as I felt their sorrow. That’s when Beth lost it. When David walked over and told her.
In a few more minutes we arrived at the little round chapel, tall columns supported the domed roof. A few short steps led us into a circular interior, no more than thirty feet in diameter. More inscriptions on the walls were dedicated to competence, courage and sacrifice, and a mural of faces stared down at us, painted on the ceiling. Then I glanced straight ahead. At first I couldn’t understand the presentation among the flags, emblems, and other memorabilia that seemed jumbled together at that one place in the chapel. Then it grasped me. A U. S. flag was partially draped over half a dark wooden coffin. I felt a giant fist squeeze my heart. That sight and the vision that over 9,000 coffins just like this one were buried all around me and here I stood among them, surrounded by so many young dead men triggered my emotions.
My eyes flooded, grief contorted my face. I reeled backwards twisting away from my own mind’s comprehension at the enormity of this loss. Quickly, almost blindly, I took the twenty paces to exit the chapel and start down the steps. A younger couple with older children was coming up. I shielded my face with my right hand, attempting to hide my sorrow and I jumped off the last two steps, away from them. I had to reach out and touch the building to keep my balance, stumbling left along the round exterior of the chapel, moving away from some other visitors who were walking on the asphalt pathways that crisscrossed the chapel area.
Our knowing guide stayed away, leaving me in my solitude to grieve in peace. I walked aimlessly among their graves; their crosses a myriad of blurred white through tear filled eyes, gasping air through groans, hands at my sides, one holding a white handkerchief, now unashamed to show my emotion.
Unless one has no soul or no heart, no one can walk through it unscathed, this memorable place of remarkable history. They talked to me, these dead. A hovering voice said, “We knew you’d come.” Another feint whisper, “Now you feel our gift.”
My tears fell upon this hallowed soil, sobs echoing amongst their named white crosses. I gathered myself. I had to finish walking amidst these soldiers who had given everything because it had become clear to me. Now I understood the statement that visitors validate their sacrifice. This was my small tribute to so many unfinished lives.
Ken Murray is the author of The Jeweler and other thrillers. Learn more about him and his work at http://kennethsmurray.com/.