Off the beaten path and onto Omaha Beach . . . with children

Off the beaten path and onto Omaha Beach . . . with children

by Diana Maria Groom
Stripes Europe

Omaha Beach in the Normandy region of France is not just a beautiful beach spot, it is also the location where the U.S. Allied troops landed on June 6, 1944 and began their assault of the Axis Forces. The Normandy region, however, is huge. It can be daunting to plan a trip there, let alone a trip with children. When I planned my family’s visit to Normandy, I planned big and ended up doing pretty small. But when we landed at Omaha Beach, we somehow found the sweet spot. Our trip was in late June when most French children are still in school, so we had the beach virtually all to ourselves each day. While we were disappointed to miss the larger celebrations on June 6, we were thankful for the quiet.

The first thing we did upon arrival to Omaha Beach was put our feet in the sand. When the tide is out, get ready for a long walk to the water. But the best part about the tide being out is that you can still see the “Hedgehogs.” These iron crosses were placed haphazardly all over the beach in an attempt to stem the tide of American forces. It honestly doesn’t seem real or like it could be a real possibility until you see the hulking pieces jutting out of the water. As we stood in awe overlooking the Hedgehogs and the water on that first day, I snapped one of my favorite photos of the trip. My oldest son, then five, was holding his father’s and his grandfather’s hands while all three were looking out at the ocean. Here was the great-grandson of a World War II veteran watching the waves roll in, while I can only guess that the others were silently contemplating the magnitude of the whole situation.

Three generations standing at Omaha Beach | Photo by Diana Groom
Three generations standing at Omaha Beach | Photo by Diana Groom

That first night we dined at a tiny seaside restaurant called La Plage D’Or. It was mussels night, and they were divine. As we dined and watched the large American flags flapping in the wind, our excitement bubbled over. We were here! We had endured an eight-hour drive to Omaha Beach with three children under six and we had made it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that we would not even complete half of the best laid plans I had made. We didn’t even come close. But the things we did do have left a long-lasting impact on all of us. We walked Omaha Beach each day, in the footsteps of my husband’s grandfather who was a D-Day+2 Veteran. He had manned the 155 Howitzer cannon and he had to land two days after D-Day when it was “safer” to get the massive gun onto the beach without sinking in the long tide first, on its eventual way to Bastogne.

On the first full day of our five-day trip, we ventured out to the beach in the early morning and it was empty, save for the occasional group of horseback riders quietly making their way through the surf. While my two boys ran in and out of the waves with my father-in-law and husband, my mother-in-law and I watched my infant daughter who was enthralled with the sand. She laid down on her stomach in the sunshine and happily explored. Here she was, touching sand for the first time in her life, in the spot where her great-grandfather had landed at Normandy. While her great-grandfather never went back to Omaha Beach in his lifetime, we knew he was there with us in that moment.

We later learned that he had a hand in the rest of our trip as well. After seeing the popular Omaha Beach Memorial, we headed to a small restaurant nearby with views of the beach. We had our lunch in Restaurant L’Omaha’s outdoor patio while gazing upon the memorial. Upon finishing our wonderful lunch, a summer rain ran through the village of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. The kids were also entering into their pre-nap stupor and we knew we didn’t have much time if we wanted to see a museum that day. And before I continue, let me tell you, you can’t throw a rock near Omaha Beach without hitting about twelve museums. So, I quickly scanned through the museums I had researched and settled on the smallest one, as I knew my children could not handle a large, popular museum at that point. As we pulled into the tiny parking lot of the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach, my father-in-law’s jaw just about hit the floor. My husband pulled our massive rental van into the only available parking spot, right next to an actual 155 Howitzer cannon used in the storming of Omaha Beach. Could it be his grandfather’s Howitzer? We will never know for sure, but I do know that we all felt the goosebumps then and could not pass an hour during that whole trip without feeling his presence with us. It was like his grandfather was leading us to all the places that meant something to him.

155 Howitzer cannon at the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach | Photo by Diana Groom
155 Howitzer cannon at the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach | Photo by Diana Groom

We entered the museum and our children instantly lit up. From the displayed bombs to the medical uniforms to the Jeep exhibit, my children could not contain their enthusiasm. As we continued toward the end of the museum, however, something stopped my father-in-law in his tracks. He was looking intently at a display case, as he excitedly told us, “I knew his son. He lived just down the street from us!” The display case was filled to the brim with items from service members from my father-in-law’s small corner of Queens, New York. To say that we knew that that museum was meant to be does not cover it. We made plans that day to bring some of his father’s memorabilia items back to the museum during a future trip, but unfortunately COVID-19 had other plans. It is still on our bucket list though: to place my husband’s grandfather’s collected items from the war into a museum off Omaha Beach, where the mighty 155 Howitzer still stands tall.

The unexplained coincidences do not stop there. Just down the road on the edge of Omaha Beach stands the National Guard Monument, dedicated to the 29th National Guard Division. This group of Army Guardsmen stormed the beach on D-Day, and the memorial stands where the group overran the German defenses that day. This memorial means more than words to our family. My husband was stationed at Fort Drum during his time as TACP (Tactical Air Control Party). Upon doing research for the trip, we discovered that my husband’s grandfather had completed his early training at what was then called “Camp Drum.” When we embarked on our trip to Normandy, my husband had recently left active duty and joined the National Guard that was honored in that very memorial on Omaha Beach. What are the odds that during an afternoon walk, my husband and I would stumble upon the main National Guardsmen Memorial? “Wow” does even not cover it.

National Guard Memorial | Photo by Diana Groom
National Guard Memorial | Photo by Diana Groom

If you want to travel to Omaha Beach like us and explore sights off the beaten path, then I cannot recommend the seaside town of Arromanches more. I looked up the tides for the days we were in Normandy and chose low tide on my husband’s birthday for the day we would head to Arromanches. Low tide on that day happened to be around 5 p.m. in the evening, and the only time that day where we could walk out and explore the artificial harbor pieces. These parts of the Mulberry Harbor were built by British forces and are only accessible during low tide. While I am not sure if my children remember it, I know we do. Watching my children run up and touch the harbor pieces was incredible. The fact that these enormous mixed concrete and steel pieces still stand and are visible only a couple of times a day is just unbelievable.

Mulberry Harbor in Arromanches |Photo by Diana Groom
Mulberry Harbor in Arromanches | Photo by Diana Groom

On our last full day in Normandy, we also had big plans. We were going to climb the cliffs at Pont du Hoc and explore all of the fortifications still standing there today. Well, we did not. When we were getting ready to head out there, my then five-year-old son said, “No. I want to fly kites on the beach with Pop.” So, we did. And it still brings tears to my eyes when I remember it. Instead of driving to see another sight, my father-in-law flew kites with his two grandsons on the beach for almost three hours. They flew kites where his father had fought for world freedom. And that is what my son remembers from the trip. Not the cannon or the bombs or the beach memorial, he remembers flying kites with his grandfather and that is what is most important to us. Travelling Europe with children shouldn’t include a checklist of every single sight you must see, a picture snapped and an upload to Facebook. It should be about the importance of the memories for our children. Sometimes we as parents should stop and listen to them and do what they want to do for once. Because I can tell you for a fact that my husband’s grandfather was there with us on the beach that day. He was with my sons and his son and his grandson, watching them happily fly kites on an empty beach on a beautiful sunny day in France in late June. He was there and he was at peace.

Flying kites at Omaha Beach | Photo by Diana Groom
Flying kites at Omaha Beach | Photo by Diana Groom

 

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