“Stunning unity animated by the highest military virtues has, during the D-Day operations of June 6, 1944, proven an extraordinary heroism…” (D-Day + 1: A reflection)

“There.”

Motioning toward Kevin, I single out one pristine white cross.  Tears well in my eyes as I pause before it, reaching for the cold stone.  I rest my hand upon it.  “Otto Woodall.” Kevin repeats the name that has been sounding in my head.  And then, a moment of silence.  We have found what we were looking for.

This day in Normandy has been unlike any other I’ve spent in France.

After lunch, Kevin and I took a regional bus from Bayeux toward the Normandy coast.  Within fifteen minutes we found ourselves on a tiny road just inland of the clearest blue water I think I have ever seen anywhere.  Out the window to our right, the calm shore with its metallic red-pink sands guided the bus; to our left, bright green wheat fields mocked the motion of the waves, dancing in unison in the salty breeze.  We  had boarded the bus unaware that this was the beginning of an American pilgrimage, but as the bus serpentined among ash and plane trees, we became cognizant of a certain weight, an impossible nostalgia for experiences we hadn’t lived and people we hadn’t known.

At a traffic circle, the driver pulled off the road and indicated that this was our stop.  “Pointe du Hoc, par là,” he said, pointing down an inconspicuous little lane.  We shrugged and took his word for it, tossing “merci’s” over our shoulders as we descended.

Then, we walked down that lane and onto the moon.  Craters as big as cars dug into the landscape preceding the cliff.  Rusty barbed wire shot up from the brush surrounding walls of stone fortifications.  Intact German bunkers studded the land amongst the pock marks.  Cliff side, we climbed down into one of these forts and looked out of the narrow aperture that the enemy once used to survey the English Channel.  Eerie.

After missing the rare regional bus, we hitched a ride with a young couple from Chicago.  Jeff and Cheryl took us four miles east to Omaha Beach, where we continued on foot toward Coleville-sur-mer.  Once again surrounded by wheat fields and farmhouses, rose-adorned stone walls and church steeples in the distance, we envisioned ourselves walking in soldiers’ footsteps, just inland of Omaha’s coast.

“Do you think that farmhouse was there before the war?” I asked, indicating a sullen gray saltbox by the street.

“I bet it was,”  Kevin replied.

In the peace that befell us on this narrow street, we walked almost in silence, save for comments like this every once in a while.  We felt at times that we had walked onto a movie set.  But then we reminded ourselves that we were on the historical stage itselfNormandy.

At the entrance to the American Cemetery is a museum.  We went in.

Faces. Letters. Medals. Real men. Real boys.  It all became so real.  Emotion overcame me as I thought of the boy, my brother, who like the young men buried here, died too young.  My heart spoke to the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters and sweethearts who received the brave and hopeful letters from loved ones already dead on the battlefield.  I remembered the email I received hours after my own brother’s death: “Love you.”

And now, here I am, standing before the grave of Private Otto Woodall.  Tears stream down my face; my throat closes upon the cries that resonate within me.

I do not know him.

I only know that he was from Kentucky, that he jumped out of a plane with the 101st Airborne on the morning of June 6, 1944, and that he died that same day.

My Kentucky brother, Otto Woodall, I dedicate this reflection to you.  Looking north over your grave, I see the calm of the clear blue waters lapping at a solitary beach: so different from the day you died.  The sky looks almost turquoise, almost cheerful, and the breeze off the coast delivers salty kisses your way.  To the east, your country’s flag.  Later, I will join other Americans in folding it and retiring it for the night, but I will be the only one to think of you.

Thank you for the gift you offered to a people you didn’t know.  Thank you for the gift you have shared with me today.

“…Having received the mission to overtake positions strongly held by an enemy determined to defend them at all costs, the regiment descended upon a heavily-mined beach and was subjected to violent gunfire of all calibers.  After gaining possession of the vitally-important cliffs, the regiment continued its attacks in the direction of St-Laurent-sur-mer.  Despite devastating losses of men and material, the regiment took hold of the occupied territory as far as Isigny.  In fulfilling the assigned objectives, the regiment contributed in large part to the defeat of the enemy and the liberation of France.”Congratulatory note to the 115th Infantry Regiment from the office of the president of the provisional government of the Republic of France; signed in Paris by French Army General Alphonse Juin, 22 July 1946. (My translation.)

***

I originally finished this post (and had been looking forward to publishing it) in time for the anniversary of D-Day yesterday. Technical difficulties determined otherwise, however, and I had to retrieve what I could from memory this morning.   Small sacrifice, but disappointing nonetheless.  

TRADUCTION A LA MELIE:

“Lors du Débarquement le 6 juin 1944, une unité époustouflante, stimulée par les plus hautes vertus militaires, a fait preuve d’un héroïsme extraordinaire … » (Lendemain du Débarquement : pensées)

« C’est là. »

Faisant signe à Kevin, je lui indique une croix blanche immaculée. J’ai les larmes aux yeux et je marque une pause avant de toucher la pierre froide. Ma main s’attarde dessus. « Otto Woodall », Kevin répète le nom qui me trotte dans la tête. Puis, une minute de silence. Nous avons trouvé ce que nous cherchions.

Cette journée en Normandie a été très différente de toutes celles que j’ai déjà passées en France.

Après le déjeuner, Kevin et moi avons pris un bus régional depuis Bayeux en direction de la côte normande. En un quart d’heure nous nous sommes retrouvés sur une petite route bordée par l’eau du bleu le plus pur que j’aie jamais vu ailleurs. Par la vitre de droite, le bus était guidé par le littoral et ses sables d’un rose-rouge métallique, à gauche, les champs de blé d’un vert éclatant imitaient les mouvements des vagues, dansant à l’unisson dans la brise salée. Nous sommes montés dans le bus sans nous rendre compte qu’il s’agissait du début d’un pèlerinage américain, mais tandis que le bus serpentait au milieu des frênes et des platanes, nous avons pris conscience d’un certain poids, une improbable nostalgie pour des expériences que nous n’avions pas vécues et des gens que nous n’avions pas connus.

A un rond-point, le chauffeur s’est garé au bord de la route et nous a indiqué que c’était notre arrêt. « Pointe du Hoc, par là » dit-il, nous montrant une petite route perdue. Nous avons haussé les épaules et le prenant au mot lui avons lancé des « mercis » en descendant.

Alors nous avons suivi cette route et nous sommes retrouvés sur la Lune. Des cratères gros comme des voitures labouraient le paysage précédant la falaise. Des barbelés rouillés dépassaient des buissons entourant les fortifications en pierre. Des bunkers allemands intacts criblaient la campagne au milieu de ces cicatrices. Au bord de la falaise, nous avons grimpé dans un des ces forts et regardé par l’ouverture étroite comme l’ennemi le faisait pour surveiller la Manche. Sinistre.

Après avoir manqué l’un des rares bus régionaux, nous avons été pris en stop par un jeune couple de Chicago. Jeff et Cheryl nous ont pris à 6 km à l’est d’Omaha Beach, d’où nous avons continué à pied en direction de Coleville-sur-Mer. A nouveau entourés de champs de blé et de fermes, de murs en pierres ornés de roses, de clochers dans le lointain, nous nous sommes imaginés marchant dans les traces des soldats, à l’intérieur de la côte d’Omaha.

« Tu crois que cette ferme existait avant la guerre ? » ai-je demandé, lui indiquant une maison carré,  d’un gris triste.

« Je parie que oui » a répondu Kevin.

Dans cette petite rue, apaisés, nous avons marché quasiment en silence, à l’exception d’un commentaire de ce genre de temps en temps. Nous avions parfois l’impression de parcourir un décor de cinéma. Puis nous nous sommes rappelés que nous étions sur la scène historique elle-même : la Normandie.

A l’entrée du cimetière américain se trouve un musée.  Nous y sommes rentrés.

Des visages. Des lettres. Des médailles. De vrais hommes. De vrais garcons. Tout est devenu si réel. L’émotion m’a submergée lorsque j’ai pensé à ce garçon, mon frère, qui comme ces jeunes hommes enterrés ici, est mort trop jeune. Mon cœur a parlé aux mères et aux pères, aux frères et aux sœurs, aux amoureuses qui ont reçu ces lettres pleines de bravoure et d’espoir de bien-aimés déjà morts sur le champ de bataille. Je me suis souvenue de l’email que j’ai reçu quelques heures après la mort de mon propre frère : « je t’aime ».

Et maintenant, je suis là, debout devant la tombe du Soldat Otto Woodall. Les larmes ont coulé le long de mes joues, ma gorge s’est serrée sur le cri qui résonnait dans mon cœur.

Je ne le connais pas.

Je sais seulement qu’il était originaire du Kentucky, qu’il a sauté d’un avion avec le 101ème Aéroporté ce matin du 6 juin 1944 et qu’il est mort ce jour-là.

Mon frère du Kentucky, Otto Woodall, je te dédie ces pensées. En regardant vers le nord par-dessus ta tombe, je vois le calme de ces eaux bleues clair, léchant cette plage solitaire : si différente du jour où tu es mort. Le ciel est presque turquoise, presque joyeux, et la brise le long de la côte t’envoie des baisers salés. Vers l’est, le drapeau de ton pays. Plus tard, je rejoindrai d’autres Américains pour le descendre et le replier pour la nuit, mais je serai la seule à penser à toi.

Merci pour ce cadeau que tu as offert à ces gens que tu ne connaissais pas. Merci pour ce cadeau que tu as partagé avec moi aujourd’hui.

«  …. Ayant recu pour mission de s’emparer de position fortement tenues par un ennemi décidé a se défendre a tout prix, a débarqué sur une plage abondamment minée et soumise a de violents feux d’armes de tous calibres.  Après s’être emparé des falaises d’une importance vitale, a continué ses attaques en direction de St-Laurent-sur-mer.  Malgré de fortes pertes en personnel et matériel, s’est accrochée au terrain occupé couvrant ainsi l’avance sur Isigny.  En s’emparant des objectifs qui lui avaient été assignés a contribué pour une large part à la défaite de l’ennemi et à la Libération de la France… »Note de félicitations au 115ème Régiment d’Infanterie du bureau du président du gouvernement provisoire de la République Française, signé à Paris par le Général de l’armée française Alphonse Juin, 22 juin 1946.

J’avais à l’origine fini ce post ( et j’étais même allée jusqu’à le publier) à temps pour l’anniversaire du débarquement hier. Des difficultés techniques en ont décidé autrement, et j’ai donc dû me creuser la tête ce matin et me souvenir de ce que je pouvais. Petit sacrifice, mais néanmoins décevant.

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17 Comments

Filed under Bryce, Culture, Gratitude, Normandy, Travel

17 responses to ““Stunning unity animated by the highest military virtues has, during the D-Day operations of June 6, 1944, proven an extraordinary heroism…” (D-Day + 1: A reflection)

  1. J. Forsberg Meyer

    So beautiful, Emily. So moving. Thank you. ❤

  2. What Jenny said, Emily. I can’t write more….I’m too overcome.

  3. lisa

    Wow Emily! tears are spilling from my eyes, what a deep and inspiring post. I just got off the phone with Travis–he’s in San Diego now and had his first day as an officer! He will be stationed on an amphibaeus (sp) ship that basically launches marines and seals when –and if– our country needs to defend our shores; just as they did at Normandy…Thinking of you often..Hope to see you when you come home. I miss your gorgeous smile. much love!

  4. beautiful and heartfelt. thank you.

  5. heartwarming. . .if only his family could find your post.. .i was just lucky to stumble upon it.

    i am only starting to write and i am so inspired by your heartfelt writing in this piece.

    thank you,
    lisa: theshoesiwear

  6. Pingback: EmilyintheGlass

  7. I just want to give you a heartfelt thank you for posting this and especially the picture of Otto’s cross. My name is Joe Woodall and Otto is my great-uncle. Nobody in my family has had the opportunity as of yet to visit his grave, though my wife and I are working on plans to currently. I never knew Otto, as he died way before I was ever born, but he is certainly a legend among our family and has been an inspiration for me throughout my life, including when I served in the Army, in his memory. Thanks again for your words and pictures, which keeps Otto’s memory alive.

    • Wow, Joe! I am so happy to hear from you! I never dreamed my words would find a member of Otto’s family. I would love to see a picture of him, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ll contact you by email.

      • Debra Sansing

        I too wish to thank you for your beautiful tribute to Otto and all who sacrificed so much for our liberties and indeed for those of the world. I am Otto’s great niece, Debra Sansing. My mom is his sister Geneva Woodall Boltz. In April of 2004, we accompanied my mother and her sister (Virginia Woodall Thomas) to Bayeux and visited his grave. It was an incredibly moving experience. I have pictures of Otto and of our visit to France and would be glad to share them with you. I never had the opportunity to meet Joe and would love for him to have my email address. Would that be possible?

      • Debra, thank you so much for your reply too! Of course I would love pictures…and I would love to connect you with Joe. Please email me. emilyintheglass@gmail.com.

  8. Geneva Woodall Boltz

    Thank you so much for remembering my brother Otto Woodall, he was a very special person. I remember his last visit with us before he was shipped out for overseas duty. My mother cooked him his favorite meal and after dinner he had to run to catch his train. I was a small child then but I remember my mothers tears and somehow she knew he would’t be back.
    My sister and I visited his grave in 2004. We were suprised how beautiful and peaceful his resting place is. We left a little bit of Kentucky there with him. Thank you for featuring him in your article.

    • Hello Geneva, thank you so much for this precious memory. I feel so close to your family now. Debra told me she has some pictures of Otto and also that she would like to get in touch with Joe Woodall. If you see this reply, please email me, or ask Debra to email me, at emilyintheglass@gmail.com and I will send along Joe’s email. Looking forward to being in touch.

  9. Jason Sams

    Otto Woodall was my great-uncle. He’s the brother of my grandmother. Allthough I never him, I knew was he was killed on D-day while gliding to the ground in his chute. I found your post and photo while researching my family history. Thank you!

  10. Don Pugh Jr.

    I writing this to you for my Mom (Shirley Sturgill Pugh) who was Otto’s niece. My Mom and her sister Judy were raised along with Otto’s son Tommy Woodall by Otto’s Mother. She always talked to my Mom about Otto when Mom was young. I have known about Otto since being a child as Mom made sure we knew as much about him as possible. He was a true American hero as were all the young men and women who died serving this country. I grew up on Marine Corps bases and can say the respect I have for our military men and women who serve in the United States military is beyond expression. It brings great pride to know our family history includes such great men who were willing to give their lives so that we can live free. Mom wanted me to express to you how much it means to our whole family that you honored him in this way. She had never seen the grave site until your picture in this blog. Thank you so much!

    With kindest regards,

    Don Pugh Jr.

    • Hello all,

      I apologize for my late reply. I have been away from this blog for quite some time, and just came upon your replies. My heart is warmed and I am overcome by emotion. What a wonderful, small world. THANK YOU for replying and for sharing more of Otto’s story with me. What a gift.

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