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Back to the Basics


This was a big weekend for a lot of people. Many journeyed down to Interlaken, a town in Switzerland known for its stunning views and incredible hikes around, well, you guessed it, some lakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely beautiful place that I want to visit at some point, but this weekend was a special occasion. Making the trip out to Western France, I went to visit the beaches made famous at 6:30am on June 6, 1944. This, of course, was DDay.

Before I ramble on about my trip, a quick word for my sponsors: school is still going great, I am in good health, making lots of friends, taking of bunch of tests, and yes, I am getting enough to eat. Homework is ramping up, but the smaller class size lets me work on it with groups that I’m familiar with and end up completing it faster. What I’m truly dreading is this upcoming week: I have 3 back-to-back tests on top of multiple assignments due. Up until now, I’ve been enjoying Georgia Tech-lite, where your biggest responsibility is showing up for class on time. Now I need to prove that I’ve been paying attention and understanding the material. If I study hard enough, I meet even be able to get my Materials Science test grade into the double digits! There’s a reason I’ve spent so much time in churches the past two weeks: I’ve been trying to find salvation from the ensuing storm. Alright, that’s enough of the doom and gloom talk. It’s not as bad as it sounds (really).

Saturday morning, I had to get up at the soul-crushing hour of 6am (psh, no problem for me) to make it to the train station in time. Our route would have us on a high-speed rail from Metz to Paris, transfer stations in Paris, and then take an intercity train from Paris to Caen. As we walked up to our platform, my friend ran into ticket issues. I tried to convince them that it would be alright, but they didn’t want to run the risk of being on the receiving end of a massive fine from some overeager ticket checker. Their decision to stay came after I had already boarded, so I watched helplessly from the window as they stood there on the platform and would not get on. Just as I was about to head down to convince them otherwise, the doors clanged shut in front of me and the train groaned to life. Any chance I had was now gone. This adventure would be one I would have to take alone.

I’ll admit: I was a little jarred by the abruptness of their exit. Now the dynamic duo had become the…. Well, I don’t even know what cool name there is for a singular person. With just one, I no longer had the power of alliteration on my side. Even worse, I had to figure out everything for myself. If I had any hesitation about something, I would just have to go with my gut (and it usually told me to get food). Making the most of my train ride, I began to work out the logistics of what would come next.

When the train pulled up to the Gare L’est in Paris, I bolted off the platform and began to make my way to the Gare St. Lazar, which stood several miles away. I had to be wary of time because I only had fifty minutes of layover and the next train to Caen wouldn’t be until much later in the evening. Luckily enough, the metro got me there with ten minutes to spare. Boarding it, I snagged an empty seat and unloaded the hefty pack that was bearing down on my shoulders. As the seats around me filled up one by one, I began to worry that this was a reservation only train (which yours truly did not have). Thinking back, I had passed by a sign earlier in the station that looked awfully like the French words for, “Reservations Required Dummy”. My biggest concern was the massive fine that could be slapped on me for not paying whatever marginal reservation fee there was. I made my decision a minute before the train pulled out: I would play it like “Joe Cool” and act like I belonged.

This tactic, surprisingly, worked out for me quite well! As has been with every previous train ride thus far, the ticket checker walked straight through the cabin without batting an eye at anyone. However, I knew I was lucky this time. From here on out, I’ll have to be more careful with knowing what trains require reservations and making sure I have them.

The train ride was long, hot, noisy, and crowded from Paris to Caen. As was the French custom, we had several delays in our journey. Originally a one and a half hour hop, it transformed into a three hour outing that a turtle could have done faster. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by high school delinquents who didn’t mind jostling my seat back and forth (man, when did I become a grumpy, old grandpa). The saving grace was the kind, older, French woman who sat next to me and who had brought her adorable dog with her. There’s no better therapy than having a puppy crawling around in your lap.

Around 1pm, the amazing FINALLY happened. We rolled into Caen! Now, I feel that I should tell you that the city’s name is pronounced like “cone”, as in, ice cream cone. I don’t know how you’ve been reading it so far, but let’s just set the record straight and make sure you say it correctly from here on out. Furthermore, a quick history lesson! Caen played an important role in the DDay invasion. After the Allied Forces secured the beachhead, the Germans holed up in Caen and prepared to make their stand here. The fighting was intense and left most of the city in ruins. Caen was one of the most, if not THE most, destroyed cities in all of France. The air bombing done by the Allies was fairly ineffective and ended up creating as many civilian casualties as it hurt German assets. The original plan had the Allies expecting to secure Caen within a day of the landings. It ended up taking four bloody weeks before the town would be back in their grasp. This was a city where history was buried in its walls: every street-corner holding the story of some intense firefight that had occurred 74 years ago.


Walking out of the train station, I made a beeline for the nearest grocery store where five euros could fill a bottomless pit (aka, my stomach). Thirty minutes later, I found myself stuffing groceries into my already full backpack like a homeless person and leaving the store with baguette in hand. I munched on the bread as I cruised the streets and ended up working my way towards the obvious center of the city. Why was it obviously the center? Well, it was the remains of a large fortress embedded in a hillside that loomed over the rest of the city. It was pretty hard to miss. I hiked my way up the ruins and plopped down in the soft, green grass. Enjoying my mini-feast I had acquired, I soaked in the sights from the hilltop. Although the grey clouds didn’t make for an attractive backdrop, it was still warm enough for a t-shirt and shorts. Around me, little kids on a school trip scurried around and played tag on the hillside. I’m sure none of them realized that the walls they were running around were almost a thousand years old, erected by William the Conqueror.

After lunch, I began to amble around the old town. Here and there I would see pockmarks in the walls: bullet holes which served as reminders of the fights. The streets narrowly wound in every direction from the center, as if the enormous roots from the Tree of Life. I made my way through several churches and eventually to the DDay memorial park, which situates itself a mile northwest of the city. To my surprise, there was a wonderful museum at the entrance of the park. It offered an interesting perspective of Caen and France before and after World War Two. Unlike other World War Two museums I had visited, this one was different in its tone. It paid homage to the staggering number of civilians lost and didn’t thank the Allies as incredible saviors. Instead, it highlighted how some of their actions led to a greater loss in civilian life. Like I said, it gave a unique perspective of the war that felt genuine, as if seen through the eyes of a French person living during the time.


At this point in the afternoon, I was trying to kill time until I could check into my Airbnb. I stumbled upon a botanical garden and sat for a while, enjoying the tranquility of the water flowing down the rocks and into a reflecting pond. I was very excited to check out my living arrangements this time. After all, the place I had found to stay at was in the bottom of a boat! Yes, you did read that correctly. Someone had an extra bunk in their boat and was renting it out for travelers like me! I couldn’t turn down an opportunity like that. When the time did come, I found my new dwelling not far from the city center. The host, with his two sons, was incredibly friendly and helpful. A jovial man with a perpetual grin on his face, he provided me with dinner recommendations that I heartily took. After going out and getting my fill of falafel, I returned to my bunk and got some studying done. As I dozed off to sleep, I could hear the sounds of the city swirling around and slipping into my cabin through the porthole. There was quite the party going on across the river. At some point through it all, I finally ended up getting some shuteye.

The following day, I departed from my host at 7:30am and made my way back to the train station. I would ride the rail one station further up to Bayeux. The tour I had signed up for would meet at the train station there and depart at 8:30am. Even smaller than Caen, Bayeux was a quaint town that had escaped the tragedies of the war. Due to its narrow streets, it never saw any fighting, so it maintained its pristine, rustic quality. When I found my tour group, I was easily a third of the age of the next youngest person there. Boy, did I feel like a kid. Comprised of three older couples, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Despite the massive age gap, my new groupmates were very friendly and made great talking companions. Being from the States themselves, they had all served in the military in some capacity or another. One of them had even been a pilot! We struck it off right away and would jabber incessantly about planes in the spare minutes. The guide of our group was a younger woman who was a Bayeux native. Her accent was thick, but her knowledge was vast on the topic of DDay. This was definitely not her first rodeo.


Our tour started with the Point du Hoc, which was a set of cliffs that housed a scary array of German anti-naval and anti-air batteries. The craters from the bombs were overgrown with brush and the same lush, green grass that I had seen in Caen. In some places the craters were ten or fifteen feet deep! As we stood at the edge of the hundred-foot-tall cliffs, our guide explained that the Army Rangers had to scale these very cliffs by cutting slits in the rocks with their knives and climbing up with their hands (even Bruce Willis would be scared of these guys). The original plan called for them to launch grappling hooks and make the ascent with the aid of ropes. Unfortunately for them, their ropes, drenched in the ocean’s salt water, prevented the hooks from reaching the ledge. When the Rangers did get to the top, the Germans had already packed up all of their larger guns and replaced them with telephone-pole look alikes. The men that came over the ledge were hit with a heavy torrent of bullets that kept them pinned down and slowed their advance. By the time they finally captured the Point, the Germans had regrouped a mile away and were preparing a counterattack. Pinned up against the cliffside they had worked so hard to reach, the Rangers had to fend for themselves for two days before reinforcements would reach them. Of the 225 men that had landed, only 90 made it through.


We continued on to Omaha Beach itself, which is a shallow stretch of sand that goes on for 3.5 miles. It was a fairly good landing site for the Allies to pick, but the Germans had the advantage of sitting on the high ground. After disembarking from their water transports, soldiers had to crawl past tank traps, barbed wire, landmines, and dodge the deluge of bullets that rained down across the beach. Even with the Germans caught off guard about the attack, it was no easy feat making it up the beach. We didn’t stay too long at Omaha Beach, but our guide told us some fascinating stories that transpired that morning.


By the time we got to the American cemetery, it was nearing midday. There was a good gaggle of tourists surrounding the centerpiece of it all: a beautiful statue showcasing the youth of the troops as they came in from the water and onto the beaches. We walked among the white crosses, which seemed to glow in the sun. At one point, we heard the deafening roar of a C-130 as it flew overhead and out onto the water. With DDay being so close, there were actors everywhere getting ready for the large scale re-enactment that would take place in a few days. That day we saw tanks driving down main roads, people dressed in the garb of World War 2, and planes from the era practicing maneuvers. I’m sure it would be quite a spectacle to see. As we rounded the edge of the cemetery and made our way back to the van, we were stopped short by the sound of “Taps”. At the statue, there was a procession going on for veterans of the 101st Airborne. As the notes played, there was a hushed silence as all movement ceased and everyone faced the center. There, several veterans stood and held a salute for their fallen brothers. It was a very moving tribute that sent shivers down my spine.


Thirty minutes later, I was back in the city center of Bayeux and making another grocery run. I had said my goodbyes to the group and found a quiet place to eat my loaf of bread and block of fresh cheese. I spent another hour exploring the city before making the trip over to the train station and beginning the journey homewards. Although I’d only been in Western France for 24 hours, I felt like I had seen enough to last me a week. The train ride home, I mulled over the famous landmarks I had seen and how significant they are to our history. The beach, soaked with the blood of thousands of young men, lays testament to the noble sacrifice given up in the name of freedom. Those men may not have realized the importance of it at the time, but their selfless devotion and courage in the face of insurmountable odds provided the stepping stone to the world we live in today. Through the celebration of DDay, we remember their legacy. Within Arnold Air Society, we have a quote that we say after every session of PT, which we dedicate to the POW’s and MIA’s. This DDay, I hope you can take some time to remember those who gave up their life in the hope of making the world a better place. As we like to say: “Always Remember, Never Forget.”

Posted by oklempay 22:02 Archived in France Tagged boat castle normandy bayeux rangers caen dday st._lazare

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