Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer is a quiet seaside village in the Normandy region of France and if you didn't know any better, you'd think this place was home to just about the sleepiest beaches in all of Europe. But these aren't your classic read-a-book-and-chill beaches. They're some of the most famous beaches on the planet and served a key role on June 6th, 1944 on D-Day.
Today, June 6th marks the 75th Anniversary of this historic event, a milestone that is expected to represent the last large gathering of World War II veterans around the globe. This past March I had the chance to see Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer with my husband and truth be told, it was really hard to imagine that this quiet place was once littered with bodies, boats and barricades. But it was and over 120,000 troops and civilians were killed during the whole of the Battle of Normandy.
My Family Connection to D-Day
This journey to Normandy wasn't a spontaneous coincidence, but a sort-of family pilgrimage I'd thought about since I was a little girl. After a few days in Paris earlier this year, Josh and I journeyed to Normandy to honor my late grandfather James Daniel Nolan, one of the 156,000 Allied troops who fought for freedom on D-Day. Josh never met Grandad, but I was touched that he wanted to learn more about this chapter of my family heritage.
When I learned about World War II in high school, I'd ask Grandad Jim about his military service and he would simply say, "War is hell." And before I could say another word, he'd shake his head slowly and say it again, "War is hell." I interviewed Grandad for my AP U.S. History family project about his time in Normandy, but my interview questions were vague, and without much emotional depth to them. It's a pretty bad paper, actually and I would love the chance to sit down with him just one more time.
Grandad Jim's unit, Company B, 741st Tank Battalion, was led by Captain James G. Thornton and their sole mission was to deliver as many troops as possible to the strategic landing area of Easy Red. Grandad Jim recalled waiting in large boats at sea in the freezing cold for their orders. The fear and anxiety they must have felt still gives me goosebumps.
As you can imagine, getting to shore is a nightmare when you're under heavy shelling, wearing a 50 pound rucksack and fighting to stay afloat in rough surf. Grandad Jim's boat was equipped with an amphibious Sherman Duplex Drive (DD) tank, but their Captain made the decision to ignore leadership's orders to let the men out hundreds of yards from shore and took the boat with their Sherman DD tank right up to the beach at a great peril to his own life. Most of the other leaders stuck with the plan and launched their men 6,000 yards from shore and the soldiers, wearing huge rucksacks, faced certain death in the rough sea. Tragically, 27 of the 32 Sherman DD tanks sank into the sea because their inflatable devices didn't go off successfully. Grandad said it was absolute chaos, but spoke highly of the bravery of his captain, James G. Thornton.
"Some crews were buried at the bottom of the Channel; some tank crews got out of their tank and were swimming in the water, until being picked up by Navy boats taking some to the hospital ship, some to the beach," he told my uncle.
For those who survived the heavy shelling, pure evil met these young soldiers when they made it to shore. Before the Allied landings, General Hummel of the Third Reich had ordered the burial of more than 10 million mines in the pristine coastal sand to obliterate any Allied forces who dared land on French soil. When Granddad Jim returned to Normandy in 1999, he told my Aunt Suzanne how shocked he was to this place in its full and glorious natural splendor. Last time he was there, he said, all of the water was bright red.
The 741st Tank Battalion in Paris
If you're familiar with D-Day history, you know that the Allies successfully took the beaches, which marked significant progress in defeating the Third Reich. But at a huge cost of human life. Grandad Jim lost 92% of his infantry brothers. They spent weeks marching toward Paris to battle for the city's liberation and on August 25th, 1944, they celebrated in the streets of one of my favorite cities. Grandad recalls the warmth, wine and gratitude of the French people. The 741st Battalion (now part of the 2nd Infantry, because so much of the 1st Infantry was lost) then played a key role in blunting the northern flank of the German attack during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Sadly, Captain Thornton died a few months later in the Battle of the Bulge at the age of 26.
But this was just the beginning.
Liberation of Flossenbürg
About four months later, on April 23rd, 1945, the 741st Tank Battalion was responsible for the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Flossenbürg is located in the remote Bavarian region of Germany near the border of modern-day Czech Republic (Czechia). Josh and I have always dreamed of visiting some of the Bavarian castles in this region, but I had never heard of this camp until taking a closer look at Grandad Jim's obituary. More than 73,000 forced laborers died while imprisoned here. When the Third Reich learned that Allies were getting close to Bavaria, they forced 14,000 prisoners on a Death March through the forest.
When Grandad Jim's unit arrived, only a few hundred prisoners were still alive and scores of decomposing bodies were left hurriedly in shallow graves. Several sources believe that upon liberation, the Allies even brought local German villagers from their homes to the camp site so they could bear witness to what had happened in their own backyard.
You can learn more about the Allied liberation of Flossenbürg in this powerful video that was produced by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center from photos and videos of U.S. soldiers who were there. Although complete and total justice cannot be achieved on this side of the grave, 41 Flossenbürg staff were found guilty by an American military court for murdering, torturing and killing their inmates. Only 5 were sentenced to death. Aside from a haunting anecdote shared with me by my uncle, I'll never know what liberating this camp must have been like for my grandfather. And how witnessing these horrors firsthand impacted him for the rest of his life.
When World War II ended, like I said, 92% of the original soldiers in Grandad Jim's unit didn't go home to their families. 56 were seriously wounded, 29 were killed in action, 5 went missing, and 3 became prisoners of war. "I went over as a private in Company B, 741st Battalion, and returned with the rank of sergeant major," my grandfather told my uncle.
I still don't know how anyone, on either side of the fight, walked out of these experiences back home into civilian life. I'm proud to share that Granddad Jim earned his law degree through the GI Bill and received a Bronze Star for his heroic service. While working at the Baltimore County Courthouse in 1950 as a researcher and student at University of Maryland School of Law, he met and fell in love with my grandmother, Dolores Mercedes Chiaruttini. They were married for 59 years and together, they had five children, including my dad, Kevin.
The Journey to Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer
Still with me? I know I shared heavy history about D-Day and Flossenbürg, but we can't forget the events that have shaped our world and how that impacts how we travel within it. It just wouldn't feel right to have shared this story otherwise. Reaching Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer made for a complicated day of travel from Paris, but it was worth it. Josh and I took just about every type of transportation but a horse. Here's how to get there from Paris taking public transportation.
1. Take Lines 6 or 14 on Paris's Métro to the Bercy Métro stop (40 minutes)
2. Walk to the Bus Station de Bercy (5 minutes)
3. Take the regional OUI bus from Bus Station De Bercy to Gare de Caen (4 hours)
5. Drive 16 miles from Bayeux to Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer in a local taxi (20 minutes)
6. Arrive at the landing site of Omaha Beach
Even though it took a lot of coordination, this trip was nothing compared to the detailed operation that brought us here in the first place. I couldn't have planned this trip without the aid of Google Maps.
Our Stay at the Villa Omaha
When our taxi driver arrived in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and the beach was finally within view, I was surprised to find a relatively undeveloped and quiet coastal town. There are just a handful of restaurants for tourists and a single convenience store. We stayed at a bed and breakfast, the Villa Omaha for €110 per night, which is just half a mile from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
And I hadn't imagined how eerily quiet this place would be. Our friendly host, Emmanuel Dupont told us there are 10-15 residents in the winter and that most are second homes owned by Parisians who come down for the summer. Of course, this sleepy town becomes busy on June 6th and is celebrated with fireworks, families and veterans.
Emmanuel and his wife bought this property as a vacation home, but opened it to guests like us about five years ago. When I told Emmanuel that Grandad Jim’s unit had landed on the section of the beach code named “Red Easy,” Emmanuel told me the bed and breakfast was located on that exact pathway. I got chills when I looked out the patio windows to see we were just 25 yards from the infamous bluffs where the Nazis lay waiting in cement bunkers for the Allies. And the view of our bed room is of the south garden, which directly faced the bluffs. Emmanuel said they used to find old helmets and military knickknacks in the tall grasses in his backyard. Even still, there’s a spooky sense of danger looking up at the bluffs and being in such an exposed location.
Emmanuel and his sister Christy refused to let us take the 30 minute walk to the Overlord Museum and were kind enough to drive us there. After we kissed each cheek in the traditional fashion, she smiled and said “Happy,” which felt like the delightfully earnest mistranslation of the French expression, Enchante which means "Nice to meet you." They both commented how much they love having American guests, particularly because of our “optimistic and positive” nature. They love how much we hug people.
Since we were visiting during the off-season, every single restaurant in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer was closed. For dinner that night, Josh and I walked four miles round trip to the only convenience store in town, the Cocci Market de Vierville to get some eats after a long day of travel. We made it there with two minutes to spare before closing time. We settled on a can of beans, an avocado, petits pains grillés, Tuc crackers (my favorites!), and simple dessert of chocolat noisettes. It ended up being a fun little picnic back at the Villa Omaha. I couldn't help but imagine how long the Allied soldiers went without food and clean water during the Battle of Normandy. Our little four mile walk was nothing.
The Next Generation
About a month after Josh and I returned home, he was hired to give a speech at a resort in The Bahamas for a trade association. We were seated at breakfast with a few folks from leadership, as well as an international partner visiting from Germany. The gentleman and I got to talking about my recent trip to Europe and I mentioned my special pilgrimage to Normandy.
"My grandfather was one of the bad guys," he said. "He got shot near Omaha Beach, but survived." He then shared with me that he had devoted most of his career to a nonprofit organization to rebuild and educate youth on cross-cultural relationships. He said he never wanted our grandfathers' animosity to be repeated in his lifetime. And here their grandchildren were, laughing and enjoying breakfast together on another beautiful beach on the other side of the world.
Like I said, it’s still hard to envision the peaceful village of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer in total chaos. Being there reminded me how grateful I am for the men and women who selflessly serve in the armed forces and how important it is for each of us in our daily lives, in our communities to reach out and befriend one another, regardless of our pasts.
I love you, Grandad. And thank you for fighting for me, long before we'd ever met.
This post is dedicated to the 85 million lives, 3% of the world's population in 1940, who were lost during World War II.