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THE SEVENTY-EIGHTH ANNIVERSARY OF D-DAY is upon us.

Thirty-eight years ago, I watched as the American president honored the fallen, and the living, at the Normandy American Cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty-eight years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. Veterans of the war saw my interest; several reached out to me, and I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories—not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

Monument to the boys from Bedford, Va.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there. That path that lead to a rewarding teaching career also resulted in one of the largest high school collections of World War II oral history in the state, now housed at the New York State Military Museum. It led to my book series. It led to the discovery of the story of the train. But the men are nearly all gone now. And I had never been to Normandy until a month ago, until the final leg of our European trip to make the documentary about my book A Train to Magdeburg: the events and aftermath took us from Germany to Normandy, France — to Omaha Beach and to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, located in Colleville-sur-Mer.

We were there to document the beaches I had been studying, teaching and writing about for those past 40 years — the place where the liberators I wrote about in A Train to Magdeburg came ashore, some on D-Day and some later.

Ten months after holding off desperate German counterattacks meant to push them back into the sea, our then-battle-hardened soldiers, rescuing a train of would-be Holocaust victims, would be shocked by the reality of industrial scale genocide; indeed, they would realize what they were fighting for.

Most impactful was our visit to the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Mike Edwards photos.

Marble headstones at Normandy

Just two days after the beginning of the D-Day invasion, the first American dead were laid to rest in a makeshift cemetery just off the beach.

A few years later, the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach would become the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Today, nearly 9,400 Americans lay at rest on more than 170 acres of sanctified ground meticulously maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, watched over by the 22-foot-tall bronze statue, ‘Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.’

We had called ahead to secure permission to film. I was stunned at the serene beauty and peacefulness of the site, and the dedication of the staff who gave us the white glove treatment, allowing us to enter roped-off sections, past row after row of marble headstones.

I tried to touch the top of each one.

Small crowds of tourists gathered and craned in curiosity as I was shown photographs and told personal stories of the young soldiers by ABMC staff: A student here. A schoolteacher there. Lawyer. Farmboy. Mechanic. Shopkeeper. Playboy. Young father. Brother. Son.

I also paused at General McNair’s grave. At 62 he was the oldest person buried here, as well as at the resting place of General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. — the highest-ranking officer to come ashore at Utah Beach on D-Day, who was felled by a heart attack six days later.

It’s a moving place.

Remembering their efforts

About a third of the World War II families with loved ones killed overseas opted not to repatriate their remains after the war, knowing they will be cared for and rest perpetually with their fallen comrades in arms.

Our day ended with us being allowed to film the flag lowering ceremony at 5 p.m.

Back at the hotel, a teenage American student sat with us in the sitting room, listening in as we debriefed ourselves on our trip.

We talked about what following in the footsteps of the American soldier-liberators and the Holocaust survivors they rescued meant to us. For me, it added an almost spiritual dimension to this story of World War II that reveals mankind at its absolute worst, but also at its shining best.

We can’t risk forgetting how the murder of six million began with words, with neighbors and friends turning away.

We hope our film will offer up what happens when “ordinary” people put themselves in harm’s way to exemplify the greatness that human beings are capable of.

Humbled at Omaha Beach

We had told our expert guides, two British expats living in France, we wanted to see the exact locations of the landing of elements of the 743 Tank Battalion on June 6, 1944, 10 minutes before H-Hour on D-Day.

Of the five Allied beachheads established that day along 35 miles of the Normandy coastline, Omaha Beach was the bloodiest. Our guide Nigel wanted us to get there early, when the tides would be similar to what Allied planners were hoping to encounter.

It was a cool overcast morning, not unlike in 1944, when Nigel led us down to this westernmost section of Omaha Beach where the soldiers had  struggled ashore.

The tide was rushing in fast, rising 12 feet in a matter of minutes. It would have hidden beach obstacles and pole mounted mines quickly. Many soldiers, weighted down, drowned.

After filming a while, we lost sight of our cameramen Josh for an hour.

The water was rushing in so fast that I was actively scanning the surf, worried that he, in walking backward while looking down into the camera lens, may have lost his footing. He turned up just as we considered sounding the alarm, having walked midway down the five-mile-long Omaha Beach.

Nigel told us more stories of the men, the heroism, the tragedy of that day. Just before where we were standing, 100 men out of a company of 150 were killed.

It was humbling to be here.

A small airfield

Later, deeper into the countryside, we found the small airfield where filmmaker Mike Edward’s grandfather served in the summer of 1944, supporting fighter planes that followed the troops.

These hundreds of makeshift grass airstrips throughout northern France.  had typically reverted to agricultural use immediately after the battles.

It was an emotional moment for Mike, to be in the spot where his grampa had served.

‘Liberated the heck out of it’

I asked our other guide, Sean, to see where Operation Cobra was launched, a planned breakout, where men of our tank battalion in support of the 30th Infantry Division and others  would race in to encircle German forces. As planned, heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force flying out of England would pound the enemy.

Unfortunately, many dropped their bomb loads early, on US troops, resulting in hundreds of casualties from friendly fire, including General McNair, the top American general killed in the European Theater, who was observing the action with the 30th Infantry Division.

Today, the approximate site of his demise is recently plowed farm fields. With my archaeological training it was easy to spot metal fragments littering the area.

Stopping quickly to visit the 800-year-old reconstructed cathedral in the City of Saint-Lô, we saw a shell still protruding from the wall and recalled the lore: How one dumfounded GI said, as troops entered the destroyed town: “We sure liberated the hell out of this place!”

At Hill 314, an emotional visit

At Mortain, we visited the site of a climactic week-long battle where the men of the 30th held the high ground against overwhelming forces, and saved the Allied breakout — but fewer than half the 700 survived.

We did more interviews and filmed up on this ancient hilltop, with glimpses of the famous cathedral Mont Saint-Michel shimmering in the distance.

The hill known for a thousand years as Mont Joie is now remembered by the US Army appellation ‘Hill 314’ in Normandy.

Between takes, in the spring sun I closed my eyes. The breeze rose and murmured through the pines, where I later learned bodies had been laid — after being searched desperately for food or weapons — while their vastly outnumbered brothers staved off a siege of evil in August 1944.

An elderly couple walking a dog spoke to me when they noticed the cameras.

I told them what we were doing, and the man’s eyes welled as he gripped my arm and thanked me for caring. It seems he takes care of the local memorials to the American fallen.

What they did mattered

In 2020, the 30th Infantry Division finally received the Presidential Unit Citation in honor of its heroism here.

What they did mattered, and their actions are lessons that will make us better if we remember, and teach the world what they did.

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