A Reminder of Price of Liberty

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COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - So quiet now as waves roll in below and the rain falls on precisely aligned rows of white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David.

Only last week, not far away on the southeastern tip of England, crowds and noise filled a golf course where the British Open was under way.

Yet this was a journey not just to another land but to another time, a time difficult to understand, even with the huge cemetery, many monuments and long history.

"A lot of kids have not the least idea of what America went through,'' Walter Ehlers, 90, told the Daily Mail of London a few days ago.

Ehlers landed on the sand here, code-named Omaha Beach, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He won a Medal of Honor in leading troops and now lives in California. He survived. Unlike the nearly 10,000 men who lie in the Normandy American Cemetery high above the English Channel in the northernmost region of France.

The story has been told, in the book by Stephen Ambrose and in the films "The Longest Day'' and "Saving Private Ryan,'' of the Allied landings and subsequent struggle inland to liberate France from Nazi Germany. Yet not until you stand on the sand or the bluffs above, see the craters and reinforced bunkers, do you really comprehend the effort.

And wonder how it was accomplished, the thousands of men, the thousands of watercraft, shells raining down, bombs blowing up.

How did those Army Rangers scale Pointe du Hoc, the 100-foot-high cliff between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, with bullets being fired and grenades being hurled at them? How did the American troops make it off Omaha Beach and then up the heavily forested slope to where hedgerows began, with German artillery ripping the earth?

Museums, artifacts and reminders now fill the towns once filled with destruction. A tank here, a machine gun there, a yellowed newspaper, a tattered banner.

A section of Mulberry Harbour, the prefab British breakwater, at Arromanches. The deteriorating blockhouse and several cannon from the German battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Bunkers and craters atop Pointe du Hoc, which is considered an official war grave, bodies of Americans and Germans beneath the ruins.

As many signs in English as in French, photos of young men handing garlands and bouquets to muddied, weary GIs who had liberated a community on what would be labeled Route de Liberte, or Liberty Road.

A restaurant-bar, Le Roosevelt, at Utah Beach, down from Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, was once a fisherman's hut. It was commandeered by the Germans, who alongside built a cement bunker, which became a communications center.

Le Roosevelt is a repository for World War II radios, pictures and autographs of returning soldiers and sailors who had gone through the Battle of Normandy and came back through the years to leave their imprint, signing tabletops and wall panels.

A mannequin attired in a 1940s U.S. Army uniform, holding a very 2011 bottle of Budweiser, stands at the bar, very much for the tourists. So is the price of a souvenir coffee cup with "Bar Roosevelt'' painted on it: $28.

As men pounded out of the landing boats through the surf, many going only a few feet before they were gunned down, others parachuted from convoys of planes.

The most famous was a private, John Steele, whose chute caught on the steeple of the 12th Century church in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, some 20 miles from Omaha Beach. Seriously wounded, he feigned death until after two hours he was cut down and rescued. In summers, a chute is attached to the steeple in the place where Steele's was held, and a dummy attired in a U.S. Army uniform hangs from the chute against the side of the old building.

In what might be judged either wise marketing or overcommercialization, an inn in Sainte-Mere-Eglise is named Le John Steele.

Plans went wrong on both sides, Allies and enemy. The Germans thought the invasion would come at the narrowest part of the English Channel, around Calais, and so like a football coach expecting a certain play, they strengthened their defenses at that point.

The American assault at Omaha Beach was launched too far out. The men became seasick. Tanks sank in the heavy swell. Bombers assigned to destroy coastal fortifications missed their targets.

The usual mistakes and chaos of a battle that was the turning point in a war so far in the past - and with graveyards full of American troops - will forever remain a haunting part of the present.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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