From June 4th to June 12th, 2004, my son Eric and I made a pilgrimage to Normandy and other famous battle sites on a cruise that was organized by the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
The cruise was scheduled to bring us to Normandy, site of the D-Day invasion, to participate in the 60th Anniversary celebrations in which leaders from all over Europe and North America would participate, including President Bush, French President Chirac and the Queen of England. Also present for the very first time at a D-Day ceremony would be the German Chancellor. Many people believe that this will be the last major celebration of this momentous event to include so many veterans as 12 million of the 16 million American World War II veterans have already passed away.
Our cruise ship left London late afternoon on Friday, June 4th. By early morning June 5th, we were cruising the Normandy coast and, as we steamed past the D-Day beaches which will forever carry the famous code names of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, we were treated to firsthand accounts of the landings by World War II veterans. This was indeed a rare opportunity – to see the beaches from the English Channel and to hear from the veterans who landed there.
After cruising along the Normandy coast, the ship then made its way towards the historic city of Caen (famous since 1066 as the city were William the Conqueror built a massive fort), a key objective on D-Day for the British and Canadian forces. In the battle for Normandy, it would take six weeks of brutal fighting before Caen fell to the Allies. As we steamed up the canal towards Caen, we passed Pegasus Bridge. This was the scene of the first action on D-Day where the British 6th Airborne made daring paratrooper and glider landings to capture important bridges and secure the East flank of the invasion area.
As this was a history-oriented cruise, there were at least two lectures each day taking place in the ship’s theater. The lectures were given by a number of famous historians, including John Keegan and Ron Drez. Personalities, including Andy Rooney from the TV show “60 Minutes”, also took part. We were very fortunate to also have a lecture from Viscount David Montgomery. He is the only son of the famous General Bernard L. Montgomery, often known simply as “Monty”.
After we docked at Caen, my good friend Gerard Dupuis met us at the ship. Gerard is a key member in the International Napoleonic Society and I was delighted to have an opportunity to meet with him. Security in the area was extremely tight in anticipation of 15 world leaders being present for the 60th Anniversary celebrations but Gerard carried with him special documents from the Mayor of Caen and so he was able to meet us at the cruise ship and take us into the charming town of Caen for a walk and coffee and cake at a Café.
Wouldn’t you know that when we got to town there was an anti-Bush and anti-USA protest going on! About 1,000 protesters marched and carried signs that said “Bush is an Assassin!” I was approached by a French reporter who asked me my opinion of the march and I told him that these young people don’t understand that if it wasn’t for the USA they would all be talking German today. The reporter listened intently and took notes.
June 6th began early as we departed the cruise ship at 6:00 a.m. in order to attend the 60th Anniversary ceremonies at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Our bus was stopped and searched at three security checkpoints along the way and, of course, it took us about three hours to cover the distance from Caen (where our ship was docked) to Colleville sur Mer (where Omaha Beach is located). Under normal driving conditions, this would be a 30 to 40 minute drive!
As we entered the Cemetery, it appeared that there were about 10,000 veterans and special guests attending. From the podium where the ceremonies and speeches would take place, hundreds of rows of chairs stretched back for at least two football fields. Just as I began wondering how far back we would have to sit, I was whisked into a seat in the front row. A French Officer had noticed the Legion of Honor I was wearing (France’s highest medal) and he told me that the front row was reserved for Legion of Honor recipients!
So there I was, front and center, about 10 feet from where the leader of the free world, President Bush, would be making an historic address. After President Bush and President Chirac addressed the crowd, they came down and shook hands with us in the front row. It was a terrific surprise and something I will never forget as I had the opportunity to speak to both of them.
On June 7th, our tour of the Normandy battlefields continued. We set out early again for an all-day tour of the primary battle areas. Along the way, we stopped on Omaha Beach and the deadly “Dog Green” sector where so many young men were killed coming ashore (the battle on this section of Omaha Beach is graphically depicted in the opening 20 minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan). As I watched young couples strolling on the beach, I was saddened by the fact that they were probably not even aware of what occurred on the sand beneath their feet. Today, it all looks so peaceful, but 60 years ago it was a killing field as German machine guns and cannons raked the length of the beach with murderous fire.
On June 8th, our cruise ship departed Caen and headed for the beautiful French town of Rouen. This is the historic city where Joan of Arc was burned alive. Rather than join the group for a city tour, my son and I hired a taxi and we set out for the coastal town of Dieppe. In 1942, my regiment, along with 5,000 Canadian infantry, was sent on a raid at the town of Dieppe. This would become the first attempt to invade Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”. It was to prove a disaster. While many invaluable lessons were learned that would save countless lives in the invasion of Normandy two years later, during the invasion of Dieppe the Canadians suffered 80% casualties (killed, wounded and captured). It was a very emotional experience for me to stand on the beach and in the cemetery where the comrades I trained with fought and died.
Back on the ship that evening a very special ceremony was held for the World War II veterans that were on board of which I was one. It was very moving for me to be in the company of those brave men who served their country, as I did, to do our part to stop the Nazi war machine.
June 9th brought us to the Belgian port city of Oostende which is near the very historic city of Bruges. Eric and I elected to take a tour of the World War I battlefield called Ypres. This is a section of the front in World War I that rarely moved more than five miles in either direction and where several hundred thousand young men were killed. It is also the area where Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae operated a field hospital and where he penned the famous poem, In Flanders Field.
The final two days of our tour took us to the Dutch city of Amsterdam. After a boat tour of the city’s incredible canal system, we took a tour of the battle sites of Operation "Market Garden" which were so well depicted in the film A Bridge Too Far . The brainchild of General Montgomery, this daring operation dropped some 30,000 British and American Paratroopers behind German lines. Their objective was to capture a series of three bridges which crossed several important rivers, including the bridge over the Rhine River at Arnhem which was known as a Bridge Too Far.
Simultaneously, with the Para-drops, a massive armored column was to punch through German lines and cross the bridges captured by the paratroopers. If successful, the tanks would have a straight shot into Germany and a chance to end the war by Christmas 1944. Unfortunately, General Montgomery ignored intelligence warnings that two SS Panzer divisions were in the Arnhem area resting and refitting after being beaten up in the Normandy battles. When the Allied armored columns encountered delays in their efforts to break through to Arnhem, the lightly armed British 1st Airborne Division was cut off by the Panzers. While they fought gallantly, after a week of battle they managed to slip out of the Arnhem area with only 2,000 of the 10,000 men that had gone in.
My son Eric and I have made many trips together over the years, but perhaps none as memorable as this one. It is difficult to find the words to capture the depth of my feelings at visiting these historic places where brave, young men gave the ultimate in the protection of our freedoms. It is so important that we never forget them, both to honor their memories and to remember the price of freedom and the cost of war.
The following letter was sent to Ben Weider by His Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch, Honorary President for Life, International Olympic Committee (IOC) ...