Rob Tiffany

Walking to Omaha Beach

Big Red One

I caught a train from Paris to Bayeux at Gare Saint-Lazare with only four minutes to spare.  Two hours later I was in the heart of Normandie and ready to crash at my hotel.  Luckily, it was only a half a mile walk from the train station to my hotel so I skipped the taxi.  Just in case you didn’t know, Bayeux was a hang-out for William the Conqueror about a thousand years ago.  Luckily, beautiful Bayeux wasn’t bombed during Operation Overlord back in 1944.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, I walked over to the Scauto Renault dealer that rents cars.  Renting a car was part of the plan since I only had one day in Normandie and wanted to visit all the D-Day beaches.  To my surprise, it was closed when I arrived.  Maybe I was too early.  I decided to walk into the center of Bayeux and would check back with Scauto later when it opened.

Upon visiting the Bayeux Tourist Office on Rue Saint-Jean, the woman there informed me that almost everything would be closed since today was May Day.  Depending on where you live in the world, this is International Workers Day or Labour Day which means everyone is taking the day off.  She said some taxi services might be open but they would be very expensive.  She then suggested that I walk up Rue de Docteur Michel to check on one last possible rental car business that might be open.

On the way to try my luck with another car rental shop, I walked through a wonderful outdoor marketplace where everything from food and wine to dresses and shoes were being sold.  It was so full of life and I think the whole town was there.

When I got to the car rental store in the Northwest part of town, the guy there told me they weren’t renting cars and to come back on Sunday.  He said all that in French.  Obviously, that didn’t do me any good.  I walked outside on to Boulevard d’ Eindoven and noticed a small sign that read “Omaha Beach” with an arrow pointing down the D6 country road.  Hmmm.

Out of curiosity, I decided to follow the sidewalk down this road for a bit just to where it might take me.  I eventually came upon a sign that said Port-en-Bessin was 9 km away.  Hey, people run 5 and 10k’s all the time.  I checked my watch and it was only 10:30 AM.  This was no big deal and I had the time, so I just kept walking on the D6 road between Bayeux and Port-en-Bessin.  Needless to say, the sidewalk disappeared pretty quickly and I was alternating between walking on the road and on the grass when I needed to get out of the way of cars.  I saw lots of tour buses full of white and silver-haired people pass by as I hiked down the road.

About half way there, I stepped on a broken bottle that went through my shoe and into my foot.  I literally had to yank it out of my shoe.  I promise I’m not making this up to make a better story.  Needless to say, this wasn’t what I was hoping for with the long walk to come.

As I walked through the beautiful countryside, I imagined what it must have been like to be a young GI back in 1944.  For a moment, I was carrying a gun and wearing the helmet and uniform of an American infantryman who was seeing the French countryside for the first time.  Large green pastures and lots of yellow flowers.  I’m sure many of those boys had never left the small town they had grown up in back in America prior to joining the Army.

When I arrived in Port-en-Bessin, I sat down on a park bench to survey the broken Coke bottle damage.  Not great, but not the end of the world either.  After all this walking, you’d think I’d be there by now but it turns out I was only a little more than half way there.  I hung a left on Avenue de Marechal de Tourville (D514) and headed west, which was parallel to the English Channel.

I walked past the Omaha Beach golf course and through Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes where a large gathering of people looked like they were having a French Bar-B-Que.  Of course, their BBQ had red wine instead of cold beer.  I soon came upon a large billboard that read, “Thanks to our Liberators.”

After hours of walking, I arrived in Colleville-sur-Mer and was thrilled to see an open cafe.  I had lunch in an old stone house where they were serving the “Michelle Obama Burger” and had a big poster of Presidents Obama and Sarkozy on the wall.  This place looked ancient and an old man added wood to a small fireplace from time to time while I was there.  Not sure why since it was fairly warm outside.  I had the hot dog and fries which ended up being 2 hot dogs lined-up end-to-end inside a baguette with melted brie on top.  Not bad.  I quickly downed 2 Coke’s since I had broken one of the rules of hiking and didn’t bring a water bottle.  After eating, the owner let me use his bathroom (toilettes) where I took off my shoe and tended to my battle wound with soap and water.

After lunch, I continued down the road past a church and visited the Big Red One Assault Museum.  This is the nickname of the 1st Infantry Division of the United States Army due to the design of their shoulder patch.  Great artifacts and memorabilia but I couldn’t shake the image of Lee Marvin from the movie back in 1980.  You probably didn’t know that Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) played a Private in that movie.

I got back on D514 which was now called Route d’Omaha Beach and walked westward.  Once I got to the roundabout that I saw on my map, I knew it was time to veer to the right and make my way to the American cemetery.  Big surprise that this road was named Route du Cimetiere Americain.  Upon entering the cemetery complex, I had to cross through a large parking lot full of all those large Coach tour buses that had passed me by while I was walking from Bayeux.

I walked into the Visitors Center and got in line to walk through the metal detector and have my backpack screened.  Inside I saw famous quotations on the walls, biographies of soldiers and lots of videos of Eisenhower and others who made D-Day possible.  This is where you start getting “misty-eyed.”  The Visitor Center is truly amazing and delivers more information about what happened there in 1944 than two semesters of history classes.  I signed the guestbook on behalf of Grandad and Paw Paw.

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced
their strength in the air and their capacity to wage overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of
war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of
the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less
than full Victory!

Good Luck!  And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

– General Eisenhower

Once you leave the visitor center, you walk out to the cemetery and face 9,387 Christian Crosses and Stars of David that mark the burial sites of the Americans that gave their lives so that Europe might be free during the greatest amphibious invasion of all time.  This is where you start crying for the duration of your time at the cemetery.  This reminded me of the hours I’d spent walking through the gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery.

One of the monuments read, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  You could almost hear flutes and drums playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic as brave Americans marched into battle.

The cemetery rests on top of cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel.  After walking amongst thousands of grave sites, I followed a pathway down the cliff to the beach below.

This is where it all began.  Neither of my grandfathers or other relatives of that Greatest Generation could tell me what it was like since they all fought in the Pacific.  Most people today have “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” to give them a sense of that day.  It was a beautiful sandy beach with a line of rocks separating the sand from the rest of the land.  After walking westward along the beach for a bit, I gathered together some rocks and wrote something really big in the sand.

“TIFFANY”

As I walked down the beach and farther away from where my journey began, I found myself calculating what time I would arrive at my hotel that night if I had to walk all the way back.  I had already walked 12 miles so far and could only imagine what completing the 24 mile round-trip journey in the dark would be like.  I could see lots of flags and another monument on the beach in the distance so I kept walking towards Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and farther away from Bayeux.

I finally arrived at a large steel piece of artwork jutting out of the beach called “The Braves” monument.  It actually looked like a bunch of giant swords pointing upward to the sky.  Behind it were the flags of all the allies flapping in the ocean wind.  As I walked off the beach and through the flags I came upon the Liberation monument dedicated to the 1st Infantry Division and the 116th Infantry Regimental Combat Team of the 29th Infantry Division.  That was a mouthful.

Now that I was at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, I decided my day was done since it was getting dark.  I walked over to a freestanding Tourist Office that looked like one of those old camera film developing huts you used to see in strip center parking lots back in the ‘70s.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked the girl inside.  She helped me find some taxi services that might save me from another 12 mile walk.  The first taxi phone number I dialed responded with a voice message in French that basically told me they were closed for the day.  Luckily, the second number I dialed got me a guy who could understand English.  He was in Bayeux and I told him I was in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer near the D’ Day House Hotel next to the flags and big monuments.  He said it was a long drive and could I wait 25-30 minutes for a driver to get there.

Definitely.

I quickly went to check out the nearby Musee Memorial d’Omaha Beach that had lots of great vehicles, guns, uniforms and photographs from the landings on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc.  After that, I grabbed a Pepsi at the D’ Day House restaurant and waited for the cab to arrive.  During the long drive back to my hotel in Bayeux I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to make the hike back.  When I got out of the taxi at the hotel, I could hardly walk back to my room.  I guess sitting still in the car caused me to stiffen-up.  I soaked in a hot bath for about an hour and then crashed without eating dinner.

When I woke up, it was time to go catch the train back to Paris.

I had spent a day walking through a small part of France.  Back in 1944-45, the millions of young men who didn’t die on the beaches of Normandie spent almost a year walking all the way across France.  I bet an ice-cold Coke and a hot dog in a baguette would’ve hit the spot for them too.

Vive la Liberte

7 Comments

  1. David Anderson

    Rob,
    Thank you for sharing. I visited Omaha Beach as a kid and was also struck both by the difficulty of taking those cliffs and the sacrifice of all those soldiers. The American cemetery was humbling. I grew up in France (Bordeaux) with American parents and Normandie was a very special trip; I really hope to take my daughters there sometime to visit.
    I started following your blog for the tablet programming info, but this was a pleasant suprise 🙂
    David.

    Reply
  2. Jane Hmmen

    Rob — What a wonderful journey through the Beaches of Normandy — it felt like I was there with you. Your story brought back some tears and the same feelings of awe and humility I felt back in 1988 when I went to the beaches of Normandy.

    Thank you for sharing this very special tribute to the people who sacrificed so much for freedom.

    Reply
  3. Dad

    Rob, what a well written account of your trip to Normandie! You have a wonderful talent…this is something that should be published in a magazine, etc. Thanks so much for sharing…Love, Dad

    Reply
  4. Stan Versaw

    Very well written and honorable thing to do. You may enjoy reading a similar account by a man who walked/visited the WWI trenches across France.
    “Back to the Front”, Stephen O’Shea, 1996, ISBN 0-8027-7618-3, Walker & Co., New York

    Reply
  5. sts

    You post awsome articles. Bookmarked !

    Reply
  6. Charlie Clute

    Keep writing! I’m going to bookmark this and come back to it.

    Reply
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