By Gary G. Yerkey
When President Obama visits Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on June 6 to participate in ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he will see a rich country endowed with exceptional natural beauty. But he will also see a sea of white crosses marking the graves of thousands of American soldiers who died liberating the European continent from Nazi tyranny.
The president will see the crosses, in particular, during a stop at the Normandy American Cemetery, located on a bluff on the English Channel overlooking Omaha Beach, where U.S. troops landed on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Visiting the cemetery — as I did in mid-May — it is easy to be numbed by the numbers. It is the final resting place of 9,387 people who were killed in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, as well as Utah Beach, just to the west, and in the ensuing Allied military campaign across France.
It is also one of 25 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission, which administers, operates and maintains the sites. A total of 124,901 American war dead have been interred in the cemeteries, including 93,236 who died in World War II.
The cemetery covers 172.5 acres. It is the most visited American military cemetery on foreign soil, receiving about a million visitors a year.
Another site, the Brittany American Cemetery, near the village of St. James 60 miles to the southwest, covers 28 acres and contains the remains of 4,410 war dead, including 97 “known but to God.”
Inside the numbers are the lives and stories of once-vibrant individuals who were sons, husbands, friends, and colleagues.
At the Normandy American Cemetery, for instance, you find the graves of the well-known and well-connected, like Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who was killed by friendly fire on July 25, 1944, near Saint-Lô. He was 61 when he died and was one of the highest-ranking American officers to be killed in World War II.
There is also the grave of Theodore Roosevelt. Jr., eldest son of the 26th President of the United States. On D-Day, he led the U.S. assault on Utah Beach and was the only American general to land by sea with the first wave of troops. At 56, he was the oldest man to participate in the invasion. Just over a month after D-Day, however, he suffered a heart attack at his headquarters near Sainte-Mère-Église and died.
At the Brittany American Cemetery you find the grave of Capt. John W. Schwer, an Army chaplain. For three years, he served as rector of St. Barnabas Church in Denton, Texas, then became acting rector at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Corpus Christi, before enlisting in the Army in 1943 and attending Chaplains Training School at Harvard University. On August 3, 1944, he was reported missing, along with his driver, Tech Sgt. Forrest R. Nelson, in the vicinity of Huelgoat, France. It was later learned that they had been ambushed and that Schwer had been killed and Nelson taken prisoner.
Also buried at the Brittany American Cemetery is Col. Wellborn B. Griffith, Jr., a West Point graduate who saved Chartres Cathedral from serious damage and possible destruction. On August 16, 1944, he entered the city with an enlisted soldier to determine the exact location of units of the 7th Armored Division and saw that gunfire was being directed at the cathedral. But after searching the building and finding no enemy forces, he ordered the U.S. troops to cease fire. Later that day, he was killed by enemy machine-gun fire in the vicinity of nearby Lèves, where a small park in the city has been named in his honor.
At the cemetery, only two civilians are interred: Thomas S. Treanor, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and an unidentified member of the Civilian Work Force.
After covering the war in North Africa, Italy, China, and Burma, Treanor landed with U.S. troops at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, then covered Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., advancing with the Third U.S. Army east through France toward Paris for the next two months. On August 18, while Treanor traveled to the front with two other reporters, the Jeep in which he was riding was run over by an American tank near Chartres. He died the next day after 10 hours of surgery at an Army evacuation hospital. His last story for the newspaper was an account of the battle for Chartres and the actions of Col. Griffith.
Not far from Omaha Beach is a burial ground less well-known to Americans: a German cemetery containing the remains of more than 21,000 German soldiers and other military personnel who were killed at Omaha Beach and other locations in France. It is maintained by the German War Graves Commission, which oversees 832 military cemeteries in 45 countries, with about 2.6 million dead. The commission also maintains an online service for locating the grave of a German soldier or determining the fate of a missing member of the German military.
For an American, visiting the cemetery at La Cambe can be a somewhat unsettling experience. But it is tastefully designed and well-maintained, with an exhibition at the entrance underscoring the horrors of war and the yearning for peace. Each grave is marked with a simple black stone cross bearing the name of the fallen soldier. Some of them simply contain the words Eine Deutsche Soldate.
Walter Benjamin, assistant superintendent of the Brittany American Cemetery, bristles when a visitor suggests that he has a great job, that it must be interesting to come to work every day. “It’s not a job,” Benjamin, a former soldier, replies. “It’s a calling.”
Image: A cross marking the grave of war correspondent Thomas Treanor is among the thousands at Brittany American Cemetery. Gary Yerkey photo.