Colleville-s-Mer, France – “This is sacred ground.”
These words echoed through my memory as we stood in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, surrounded by 9,387 marble crosses and Jewish stars on acres and acres of the greenest grass I’ve ever seen.
“This is sacred ground” is what former Army Ranger Sid Salomon told me back on June 6, 1999 as we stood in front of the gravesite of Henry “Steve” Golas. “This is why I come here,” Salomon said. “I find their graves and throw them a salute.”
It’s 18 years later, and I’m back on this sacred piece of soil, standing in Section J, Row 6, in front of the gravesite of Golas. It didn’t seem appropriate to throw him a salute, as I never served in the military. But I paid my respects, and thought about Golas and Salomon (who passed away in 2004), and all the other Rangers I met when I covered their reunion trip to Normandy for the newspaper I worked for at the time.
Salomon was a 1st lieutenant in C Company of the Army Ranger 2ndBattalion on D-Day and Golas was first sergeant for the entire Ranger 2ndbattalion. They landed together, about a mile west of the American Cemetery at dawn on D-Day on the beach at Pointe et raz de la Percee.
“(Golas) was gunned down as soon as he got off the boat,” said Salomon, who was wounded seconds after he jumped out of the landing craft. “Although we had the best training, it’s not skill that I’m here. It’s luck. Sgt. Golas was just as well trained as I was, but he wasn’t as lucky.”
Normandy is where history was made, where the largest military invasion in the history took place, and tens of thousands of Allied soldiers helped turn the tide of World War II.
My recent trip, Susan, was my fourth to Normandy, and the third by bicycle. Cars and tour buses are the preferred mode of transportation for the vast majority of the tourists who travel to the Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword invasion beaches to try and make sense of and feel a connection to an event that happened more than 80 years ago, and still shapes our modern world.
These days, more and more people are peddling their way to Arromanches (the port the British built on D-Day), to the American Cemetery and on to Point du Hoc, the famous – and steep – cliffs that members of the Ranger D, E and F companies scaled while under heavy fire from the entrenched Germans up above. There are travel companies that organize and lead cycling tours, or, you can rent a bike and do it on your own, which was our preference.
Normandy is rural and rustic, filled with apple orchards, grazing cows (they say the butter here is the best in all of France), tiny villages, old-stone churches and scores of World War II memorials and museums. The bike routes are well marked, the roads are mostly quiet and there’s more of a connection to the land, the people and the history of this region when you pedal through it at a leisurely pace.
Home base for our Normandy bike trip was Bayeux, a fairly large city that’s close to most of the major invasion sights. Bayeux has an amazing cathedral and is the home of the Tapisserie de Bayeux, a 70-meter long tapestry that’s about 1,000 years old and tells the story of another nearby invasion that changed the world: The 1066 conquest of Normandy by William the Conqueror.
The Bayeux train station is a little south of the center of town. Soon after we walked to the Hotel Le Bayeux, a van from LocVelo pulled up with our rental bikes: A Cannondale for me; a Specialized for Susan. They were very-nice, all-carbon bikes. Actually, they were very-nice bikes several years and scores of renters ago. The original components had been replaced, perhaps several times, and weren’t as nice as the original parts.
Oh well, what are you gonna do?
Ride them, of course.
A lot has changed, biking-wise, since my first Normandy bike tour. There are several places to rent bikes in Bayeux; the tourist office passes out copies of La Calvados a Velo, a series of 13 maps of the area; and there are lots of signs for cyclists: a green, stick-figure guy on a bike to guide you to all the beaches, towns and cemeteries.
We went on day trips from Bayeux to many of the World War II sites. And whenever we rode, and whatever D-Day sites we saw, I thought of my Ranger friends.
Normandy is dotted with cemeteries, a reminder of the human toll of D-Day. There’s a British Cemetery in Bayeux, the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-s-Mer, and a German Cemetery just outside the little town of La Combe.
At the visitor’s center of the American Cemetery, you can punch in the name of a solider and the computer will tell you where he’s buried. We did this to find the gravesite of Golas.
My favorite Normandy bike ride began with a train ride, from Bayeux to Carentan. There was a “special” car at the back of the train for velos (bikes) with hooks to hang your bike on. From Carentan, I headed east, to the German Cemetery, and then on to the coast and Pointe du Hoc.
This is where the big German guns were located, ensconced in thick concrete bunkers. Somehow, some way, the Rangers had to climb the cliffs and knock out these guns. It was an impossible mission – and yet, they did it.
“There was a machine gun on our right flank we couldn’t locate,” Frank South, a Ranger medic, told me back in 1999. “We suffered a lot of casualties from that monster. And there were grenades, we called them potato mashers, because they looked like potato mashers, coming down from the top.”
South died in 2013.
The burnt-out German bunkers remain atop Pointe du Hoc, as do the huge craters from the all the bombs that were dropped in the days leading up to D-Day. You can stand at the edge of the cliffs and look down – and wonder how some of the Rangers made it to the top, dodging and ducking bullets and potato mashers.
From Pointe du Hoc, I followed the coast eastward, and stopped at Pointe et raz de la Percee, where Salomon and C Company landed. A and B companies landed nearby, a little to the east in Vierville.
“As we ran up the beach a mortar shell fell right behind me and killed or wounded most of my mortar section,” Salomon said. “The blast knocked me face first into the sand and there was shrapnel in my back.”
Of the 37 men on the landing craft under Salomon’s command, only nine made it to the top of the cliffs, and seven were wounded.
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks was the captain of C Company of the Ranger 2ndBattalion. Yep, Salomon’s company. A few days after D-Day, Salomon was promoted to captain of B Company.
Ed O’Connor was in A Company.
“As soon as the ramp went down, guys were getting hit with machine gun fire,” he said. “I jumped off to the left, we were trained never to jump straight off, and the guys were falling down all around me.”
O’Connor raced across the beach and took aim at where the German fire was coming from.
“She didn’t work!” he said. “All that training and my M1 didn’t work. I looked at her and the stock was splintered. A German had put one right on my chest and my gun saved my life.”
O’Connor passed away in 2006.
I don’t think any of the Rangers I met back in 1999 are still alive. But their stories, heroics and memories live on and are preserved all along the coast of Normandy.
Here’s the link to my eBook Biking Normandy, which has a lot more details on the riding … and the Rangers.
I’ve also written eBooks on Biking the Loire and Biking Provence.