Vial of sand, heartfelt gratitude intensifies encounter with history

S. Lee Epps

There has been much attention given the past several days to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. Visiting Omaha Beach is an indelible American experience. 

I was fortunate to visit that hallowed site in 1999 and by happenstance, there were two occurrences that magnified an already meaningful experience. 

It was 55 years after that day on June 6, 1944, when more than 150.000 Allied troops from a dozen nations, including the United States, landed on five beaches in Normandy, France that was at the time controlled by the army of Nazi Germany.

Some historians consider it the single most important day in the 20th century.

An estimated 10,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives, but it led the way to the defeat of the Axis powers and the eventual end of the European theater of World War II. 

 The movie “Saving Private Ryan,” has helped many to visualize and comprehend what brutal sacrifices were made that day.

It is difficult to visualize the carnage of that historic event when standing later on such a peaceful and beautiful, although solemn site. 

On the bluff overlooking the beach - once manned by Nazi firepower - there is now an American cemetery with row after row of more than 9,000 white crosses marking the sacrifices of so many.

It appears ironic that invasion came at this time of year. Many who died there were about the same age as those whom I witnessed crossing the stage at high school graduation two weeks ago.

The visit to Normandy and Omaha Beach was not the purpose of my journey to Europe; it was a side trip on a genealogical tour. 

Normandy was on the way from the French coastal home of my ancestors to their next home in southern England before they emigrated to North America in 1699 - exactly 300 years before my visit in 1999.

As it happened, one of the members of my genealogical party had been on an American supply vessel just off the coast from Omaha Beach during that world-changing invasion in 1944.

He had brought along a small glass vial for this stop on the tour. It was unforgettable, watching him kneel down to place in his small vial a little sand from Omaha Beach. 

He would later share that vial with his military brothers back in the United States when they next met to look back on their World War service.

On the night before and after our visit to the beach, we stayed at a country estate along with other tourists. 

At the large common dinner table, there was a young Frenchman, probably in his 20s - too young to have any World War II memories of his own. 

But when conversation revealed that our party included an American D-Day veteran, this young man emotionally and profusely expressed his gratitude to our friend for having help save his homeland from the vice grip of Nazi invaders.

Recalling his emotional response still brings tears to my eyes. Young French citizens had obviously been educated as to that part of our common American and French struggle and victory for independence and freedom.

France had been the first foreign ally for the 13 Colonies during and after the American Revolution. 

If not for France, the colonies may not have been successful in their quest for independence in the 1770s. 

France (and the rest of Europe) would not have survived with independence had it not been for the United States in the 1940s. 

For an American, standing in the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in France is an unmatched American experience.