The Azamazing evening was just that, amazing. Held at the port terminal which had been transformed to a time 70 years earlier. Stepping off the ship to be greeted with the flags of France, Canada and America. Within the terminal a dance band ‘Tea for Two’ played those songs that were the hits of the day.
Dressed in American ‘G.I.’ uniforms, they played to the delight of the crowd. 3 female singers dressed in the uniform of the era sang the songs made famous during the war years. The guest of honour, our onboard veteran Henry, received from the Mayor of Cherbourg a plaque commemorating his first visit back to France since he parachuted in on D-Day 1944. A troop of dancers had been brought in from Paris dressed in costumes of the 40s. Tables with wine and food were in abundance. Everywhere the flags of America, Canada and France with the occasional British flag visible. It was late when the last of the party goers returned to the ship tired and weary but bubbling with enthusiasm for what truly was an Azamazing evening.
Saturday is an early start for the beaches, monuments and cemetery visits. The sky is heavy with dark clouds and the rain is getting heavier. Not a good start. A two-hour drive from the ship passing through villages proudly flying the flags of France, Great Britain, America, Canada brings us to the outskirts of the small coastal town of Arromanches where numerous camp sites sporting renovated vehicles from the 40s are in abundance. The rain is easing, and I see a patch of blue in that dark sky. Joining the queue of traffic into the town centre is an opportunity to take in the true atmosphere of the occasion. A barrier to a side street is moved aside by police and our coach turns into an area leading to the sea. The sight is amazing, miles of golden sand, the famous beaches of Juno and Gold. The rain has stopped, and the sun is breaking through. Alighting from the coach I am suddenly amongst the hundreds, no thousands of visitors who have come to celebrate. The American Legion band from Holland, Michigan, USA is playing the music of Glenn Millar and other composers of the time. The sun is now shining and the temperature climbing. The beaches are filling with families looking at the renovated vehicles that are parading. I look along these beaches and try to imagine how they must have looked to the thousands of young men in uniform, many of them thousands of miles from home, who in bad weather landed on these beaches and in many cases gave up their young lives as they fought their way up these beaches to give us freedom. How different today. The band is now playing ‘Taps’ and veterans are parading the American Legion flags representing the different armed services followed by the salute. A moving ceremony that makes an impression that will last forever.
Back on the coach, and we head for Omaha Beach. Passing by the Bayeux War Cemetery where the headstones gleam white in the sunlight. People are attending services and laying wreaths whilst a group of pipers plays a lament. We arrive at Omaha Beach, again a beach of miles of golden sand which is dominated by the memorial to the National Guard of the United States who took part in the amphibious landings on that beach during 6th and 7th June 1944. Units from the east coast of the United States stretching through Kansas to California they came to help. The memorial showing a soldier dragging his injured colleague says it all. A memorial to the brave men of the Royal Air Force who set up and operated the radio and radar for the Americans that day, 6 of whom are buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. The silence is suddenly broken as the sound of a wailing siren comes towards us. Riding a renovated military police motorcycle is a rider in uniform heading a convoy of jeeps and trucks just as it would have been in those days. I look back to the beach and spy a male dressed in the uniform of a sergeant from the 10th Airborne Division, he is placing flowers and writing in the sand. The writing is finished, there are flowers at the start and finish. It says ’Bloody Omaha’.
The next port of call is the American War Cemetery. Situated on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, it is a truly amazing place. A huge memorial, pristine in the sunlight, with the statue reaching for the sky. In front, a large single wreath jointly from the Presidents of France and the United States. I see our Veteran Henry and ask him his thoughts, Emotional is the answer. Beyond are the rows of white marble crosses in perfect line from which ever angle you look. In front of each, a small French and American flag. Visitors walk amongst them, some looking for relatives, and some just wondering at the huge loss of young lives. In front of one is a wreath with the words ‘Uncle, we wish we had known you’. An inscription on several crosses reads ‘Here rests in honoured glory, a comrade in arms, known but to God’. In front of another sits a child just looking at the cross and its inscription, it’s the grave of her great-grandfather.
Before I came on this cruise, I said it was my opportunity to say ‘Thank You’ for my freedom, to bow my head and maybe shed a tear. I turn and look across the lines of crosses, to the beach and the sea beyond. I try to imagine how they must have felt as they disembarked their landing crafts, fought their way up the beach under the attack of the German guns. In short, I can’t. My uncle Len was one of those, and he was always reluctant to talk about it. I think of him now, a tall dark haired modest and principled man who used to say, when asked, that it brought back memories of all the good friends he lost. Yes, I said ‘Thank You’ Yes, I bowed my head. Did I shed any tears? Yes, many.
Our final stop was the Rangers Memorial at Pointe du Hoc. It was here that 225 Rangers left their ships in the first wave, and at the end only 90 were able to bear arms. A memorial bears the inscription by General Dwight D Eisenhower, ‘They Did It So The World Could Be Free’. It says it all. Here I met with two more veterans. Nellis Ver Hey of the 82nd Airborne Division and Birney T Havy a holder of the Silver Star. How elegant and proud they were with their richly deserved medals.
On the drive back to the ship, the atmosphere was a little subdued. So much had been seen that made people realise just what had been sacrificed for those of us enjoying our freedom. History tells us it was ‘The Longest Day’, but from me Thank You, you have given me 70 years of freedom.
This article was written for the 70th anniversary of WW2 in 2014. The ‘Past to Present’ cruise has sailed, but do visit the Azamara website for similar upcoming voyages.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Azamara.