Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day 10 – May 28 (Monday – Memorial Day) – Honfleur

Clearly Honfleur is quite close to St. Malo as we were already docked when we got up in the morning.  We had signed up for the President’s Normandy excursion that was scheduled to leave at 10:15.  We boarded one of five buses bound for the D-Day Beaches.

We drove about 1.5 hours to “ferme de la Ranconniere”, a very fancy restaurant that serves food typical of the Normandy area.  As we were driving there, we went through Arromanches, right by one of the D-Day landing beaches.  This was cool because it is where they constructed an artificial harbor (from sunken boats and barges that they hauled across the Channel).  The streets of the city were extremely narrow and our guide (who was absolutely excellent) talked about how the tanks and other vehicles had to navigate as they were unloaded from the transports.  We didn’t have time to stop, eventually making it to the restaurant. 

The farmhouse was quite beautiful, made of stone, with flowers and just a beautiful setting.  First course was a crepe (maybe galette although it seemed more like a crepe) with vegetables and ham inside.  We thought that was quite an excellent lunch when they brought up the second course.  This was roasted chicken in an amazing sauce, plus boiled potatoes and vegetables. It was great, but a lot of food.  The third course was a mousse-like desert layered in three colors (much like Neapolitan ice cream).   Amazing, but a lot of food.  After eating, we boarded the bus for the coast.  This was another 30 or so minute drive.

We made it to Pointe du Hoc.  This was the location where the Germans had six 150mm cannon trained on Utah and Omaha beaches.  The idea was that a small group of rangers led by Lt. Col. James Rudder would scale the cliffs and attempt to take out the cannons.  After some false starts (the weather was not good and they mistook another point for Pointe du Hoc), they eventually scaled the cliffs and took control of the area.  Interestingly, there were no cannons.  About 3 months before the invasion, Field Marshall Rommel had decided to change the layout of the fortification.  The cannons were being changed for 8 cannons in a different configuration (and more fortified).  The cannons had been transported several miles inland waiting for the construction to be completed.  They were still sitting inland when the Rangers attacked.

Alex in a bomb crater.  We took this because we took a similar one when we visited the same area 18 years ago when Alex was 6.

We had just about 30 minutes to quickly see the area and where the Rangers scaled the wall and then had to hop right in back on the bus.  (This is a theme for the day, we ended up trying to do a ton of things and rushing through them all).  We then drove about 15 minutes to a small shop/restaurant/hotel where we were scheduled to sample some of the locally made cider.  What Crystal had done was arrange to have the D-Day Academy organization provide a number of actual World War II vehicles that we could ride in.  There were jeeps, troop carriers, and even a duck.  There were enough vehicles to hold 2 buses worth of people, so while one group would go for a ride, while the rest of us would do the tasting, and check out the WWII weapons, uniforms and other paraphernalia.  It was really, really cool to get to actually hold the various weapons.  Alex and Brenda clearly loved it (Bonnie and Clyde style).

The only downside of this stop was that there was only ONE bathroom (that is one) for all 200 or so guests.  So, the line never seemed to go down.  Eventually it was our turn for the ride.  We were in the first vehicle of the convoy, a troop carrier made by White Corporation.  It was 7 tons and had bullet proof glass.  We piled in and drove down and along Omaha beach while the driver told us what happened in that area on June 6, 1944.  We didn’t get to stop on the beach (however, there is nothing really to see other than the topography of the area, as it is now merely a beach with houses and kids playing in the sand and water). It was totally amazing and a once in a life time experience. 

 Brenda and Alex squeezed into the carrier.
 Our convoy.
 Omaha beach today.
 Here we are in front of the troop carrier.
The plate in the troop car that we rode in.

After we finished that, we went to the American Cemetery (which was fairly close).  We got to hang out for a few minutes waiting for the final group to finish up their convoy ride and show up.  

Once we were all present, there was a ceremony at the monument.  The ceremony began with the national anthem and then a trumpeter played taps.  That was followed by Crystal President Greg Michael and General Zinni who carried a wreath and laid it at the base of the monument.  A few moments of silence followed.  Then the assistant to the Superintendent said some a small speech about remembering our fallen and the ceremony ended.  The whole ceremony was amazingly moving.

We then had a few more minutes to hang out, until the flag ceremony.  They lowered and folded the French flag (normally they fly two American flags, but since today was also a French holiday, they flew both). 

After that, we moved to the American flag and that was lowered (to the playing of taps) and then folded.  All of the veterans in the group (including three or four that were WWII vets) helped to fold the flag and pose for pictures.

Finally, Brenda had brought a medal from the Maine organization of Greeters who meet the soldiers returning to Maine after their service.  She presented the assistant Superintendent with the medal.  He accepted it and said that it would be displayed in their offices area (which was being remodeled).  

This is the wall of the MIA soldiers.

After that, we had to head back to the buses for the long trip back to the ship.  Again, we did not have any time to wander around the cemetery and reflect on the significance of what we were experiencing.
As we boarded the bus, we found out that one of the buses did not have a working air conditioner.  So, after some false starts, eventually we were able to get the guests on the broken bus spread onto the other buses for the trip back.  That trip took us about an hour and three quarters.  We finally arrived on the ship at about 8:15pm.  We felt that it was a very long, very rushed day.  However the experience was absolutely priceless.

That evening they had open seating dining, so we went in, had another great meal and then hit the sack early (the only entertainment of the evening was a show by the string quartet at 8pm).

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