The Normandy American Cemetery, Normandy, France

View of the cemetery from the colannade, looking over the reflecting pool.

View of the cemetery from the colannade, looking over the reflecting pool.

Every Memorial Day millions of Americans attend services at cemeteries throughout the USA to honor our fallen servicemen, yet most of us are unaware that similar services are being held in American military cemeteries in Western Europe, where almost 125,000 American soldiers still lie, far from home.

The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil, including many immaculately maintained military cemeteries tucked away in some of the most beautiful countryside you can imagine in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

With one million visitors a year, the NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY, in Colleville-sur-Mer, is the most visited American military cemetery in western Europe. It achieved legendary fame since the heart-rending opening scene of the film “Saving Private Ryan” was featured here, making it a major tourist attraction.

Taking up 37 acres, the rectangular cemetery spreads out along a vast emerald green 172-acre plateau at the top of the same sand dunes American soldiers fought their way up on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

Inside the cemetery grounds, the large semi-circular colonnade with two open alcoves facing each other is the first structure to catch your eye. Inside this portico, battle maps of the D-Day landings and the western European campaign are mounted on the walls.

Centered in the colonnade is a 22-foot-tall, muscular bronze statue titled, “Spirit of American Youth” facing out over the cemetery — it represents the soul of American youth rising out of the waves of the bloody Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944. A long reflecting pool spreads out from there toward the cemetery.

Behind the colonnade is a long curved wall in the Garden of the Missing; here the names of 1,557 men killed, whose remains were never found, are inscribed.

Scene of the cemetery looking out over the English Channel.

Scene of the cemetery looking out over the English Channel.

In the main cemetery are rows upon rows of perfectly aligned white marble crosses. The 9,387 crosses are a stupefying sight, radiating outward in perfectly straight lines, in every angle they are viewed; most are of the standard Latin cross shape, some, the Star of David.

Visitors walk slowly, as if in a trance, avoiding eye contact. Most have moist eyes and it’s not from the gentle wind blowing across the bluff. The intensity of the emotions this cemetery stirs up is stunning. There’s no sounds, except for that of the breeze through trees that line the sides of the cemetery. The laurel, cypress and holly oaks add a feeling of serenity to this emotionally overpowering place.

The engravings on the crosses tell heartrending stories. The date of death is inscribed on the crosses and you get some idea of how many died on D-Day. Paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and infantrymen from many other American divisions lie here.

The visitor’s room at the entrance to the cemetery has an information sheet that points out gravesites of historical interest. There are four women who rest here, and three American Medal of Honor recipients, including General Theodore Roosevelt, son of the former President of the United States. He’s interred beside his brother Quentin, who was killed in WWI and reinterred beside his brother at the request of his family.

A father and son lay side-by-side; there are 33 gravesites where two brothers are buried next to each other. The two brothers killed in action, Preston and Robert Niland are also buried here; they inspired the aforementioned movie, where a young soldier was recalled from duty because three of his brothers were missing in action. The real-life fourth brother, Edward Niland, went missing while on an aircrew in the Pacific. Mercifully, he survived a Japanese POW camp.

The view from the top of the high, soft sand dunes is superb. On a bright, clear blue day you can see for miles across the English Channel. Gazing down across the long, deserted flat white expanse of Omaha Beach, you can see where American soldiers debarked their landing craft to sprint up the beach on D-Day. The top of the dunes is also where German soldiers prepared to defend their fortifications.

For a more personal experience, visitors can descend the sand dunes and walk several hundred meters down the gen-tly sloping beach to the water’s edge. Turning around, you will see how far the soldiers had to run up the beach on D-Day into the teeth of a hailstorm of machine gun, rifle and mortar fire.

At the distant end of the cemetery, the circular, white Vaurian limestone Chapel surrounded by a colonnade provides a place of quiet and reflection. The chapel houses a black and gold antique marble altar inscribed with the words, “I Give Unto Them Eternal Life and They Shall Never Perish.”

Visitors come away knowing that France has never forgotten the ultimate sacrifices these young soldiers made.

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The sculpture inside the colannaade “Spirit of American Youth.”

The NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY is east of St. Laurent-sur-Mer and northwest of Bayeux in Colleville-sur-Mer, 170 miles west of Paris. The cemetery may be reached by automobile via highway A-13 to Caen, then N-13 to Bayeux and Formigny, continuing on D-517 towards St. Laurent-sur-Mer and D-514 to Colleville-sur-Mer, where signs mark the entrance to the cemetery. There is rail service between Paris (Gare St. Lazare) and Bayeux, where taxicab and tour bus service is available; travel by rail takes three hours. Hotels are available at Bayeux and Port-en-Bessin.

The cemetery is open to the public daily except on December 25 and January 1. Hours of operation are 9 am to 6 pm from April 15 to September 15, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. When the cemetery is open to the public, staff members are on duty in the Visitor Center to answer questions and escort relatives to grave and memorial sites.