Given the Brobdingnagian scale of this cemetery, it’s difficult to imagine that there was a time when it wasn’t here. When it didn’t exist.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial began its life as a temporary cemetery – St. Laurent Cemetery – on 8 June 1944. It was the first American cemetery established in Europe during WWII. What we see today is the amalgamation of ten temporary cemeteries where nearly 9,400 US military are buried, including 45 sets of brothers, all of whom died in the D-Day landings or the days following.
There is one World War I aviator killed in action buried [here]. […] Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, was killed in aerial combat in 1918. After construction of the permanent cemetery, Quentin’s remains were reinterred at Normandy to lie in rest beside his brother, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Theodore was 56-years old when he led the assault on Utah Beach on D-Day, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He died of a heart attack in France in 1944 roughly a month after the invasion.
Not all bodies have been found. Not all of the missing have been accounted for. There’s a wall, in a garden, on which 1,557 names are inscribed. Those whose bodies have been recovered since are marked with rosettes.
The most recent burial at the Normandy American Cemetery happened on July 9, 2022. Second Lt. William J. McGowan, a U.S. Army Air Forces pilot who was killed on D-Day, was buried there almost 80 years after his death. His remains were discovered during the excavation of his crash site, and officially accounted for on May 13, 2019. While the cemetery is closed to burials, the next of kin of individuals like McGowan whose missing remains are later identified are able to choose interment at the cemetery.
It is mindboggling to think that there are families out there who are still living in the hope that the remains of their loved ones will be recovered, nearly 80 years after the fact.
The bronze statue in the centre of the memorial depicts the Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves, by American sculptor Donald De Lue. Carved into the base are the words: To these we owe the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live.
There’s a sterility to the place that sharply contrasts with some of the Commonwealth cemeteries I’ve visited. The headstones, crosses and stars, are roped off, the paths clearly defined. There is no wandering.
If you want to visit a specific grave, you have to arrange it beforehand.
To plan a site visit, a visit to a relative’s grave, request a group visit, special tour, or wreath laying ceremony, please contact NormandyVisits@abmc.gov
It made it all very impersonal. For me.
I like to see the ages and the epitaphs. I like the stones (on Jewish graves) and the flowers. I like the sense that people visit. And yes, I know a million people come here every year, but that sense of being peopled is missing.
It’s hard for me to describe.
It’s just too clean. Too matter of fact. Death is neither.
Still, nothing can take from the fact that so many lost their lives in June of ’44. There’s a stillness in the air in these parts that is laden with memories of their sacrifice. That so many come to pay their respects is heartening. They have not been forgotten – by some at least.