U.S. soldiers rest in peace in France before old comrades' last D-Day tribute
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER France (Reuters) - Little disturbs the peace at the Normandy American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, with just the sound of the waves of Omaha Beach, the chirp of birds and an occasional lawnmower breaking the silence.
Here, under perfectly spaced white marble headstones, lie 9,387 U.S. soldiers who fell 70 years ago during the Normandy campaign, that audacious test of grit and human sacrifice that began as history's largest amphibious assault and ended with the crushing of German defenses, ultimately hastening the end of World War Two.
Next week, when U.S. President Barack Obama and a crowd of 10,000 guests descend on the American cemetery for D-Day commemorations, the living will outnumber the dead. Wreaths will be laid and eulogies read to the fallen.
But Daniel Neese, who has run the cemetery for over 25 years, prefers the peace to the ceremony.
"In early morning, and late evening, what I do is go all the way back, to the back of the cemetery, because behind the chapel those soldiers are rarely ever seen," Neese told Reuters.
Behind the headstones rising from the immaculately cut grass on the cliff overlooking the infamous Omaha beach - which with Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach brought Allied forces ashore on June 6, 1944 in the first step of Operation Overlord - stand two female statues, representing the United States and France.
"And those two ladies are watching over our troops for eternity. And there's a sitting bench there. And it just allows you to sit there and think," Neese said.
There is indeed much to think about here and the headstones are the testament: Hogan Johnston, a North Carolina Staff Sergeant from the 29th Infantry Division killed on D-Day; John Donovan, a 1st Infantry private from New York who also died in the first assault on the beaches; the 82nd Airborne Sergeant Hamp Pilcher from Louisiana, dropped into Normandy by parachute but killed before the month's end.
"You know, when you look out there, those are not headstones. Those are men," said Neese.
"PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE" FEAT
About 350 U.S. veterans - now mostly in their 90s - are expected next week, along with Obama and French President Francois Hollande for the ceremony, Neese said, likely the last major tribute the vets will witness in their lifetime.
It is just one of many international commemorations throughout Normandy, from parachute drops and parades to concerts and vigils for the American, Canadian and British troops who died in the intense battle for 50 miles of coastline.
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend a lunch with other world leaders on June 6.
Visits by veterans of D-Day and Normandy are becoming rarer and rarer, but the protocol is the same - they are greeted by Americans, asked to sign a VIP register, and provided an escort.
"If they came here to see one of their buddies or something, we'll take them out," said Neese. "It's whatever we can do to help them."
It's a sentiment shared by the cemetery staff, such as Karen Lancelle, the third generation in her family linked to their American liberators. Her grandfather helped transport the coffins of U.S. soldiers to the Cherbourg port after D-Day for transport home. Her father became a cemetery gardener.
"My grandfather watched over their remains, my father watched over their last resting place, and I watch over their memories," said Lancelle, a guide at the cemetery.
Gardener Arnaud Dubois said he feels a heightened duty as he trims grass, clips roses, and rakes leaves around the graves.
"We know the men are there, and we try to respect them," said Dubois, who also hails from Normandy stock. "It touches us because, as gardeners, we have respect for our work, and the place and their memory."
On a recent weekday, volunteers from "Flowers of Memory," a group begun by a U.S. D-Day vet to honor the fallen soldiers in Normandy, arrived to place a bouquet on a grave.
"It's a moral obligation," said Antoine Vescovali from Marseille, who visits once a year with his wife to pay respect.
"You look at the beach, you look at the cliffs - remember, there were German batteries here - you see their chances," he said. "It was practically impossible what these guys did."
MORE THAN JUST A BEACH
It is low tide on Omaha beach itself, where three French soldiers have come to see for themselves the spot where 2,500 U.S. soldiers were killed on one day alone.
"It touches us, how did they do it?" asked one, who was not allowed to give his name. "For those who don't know history, it's just a beach. For those who know better, it's much more."
Further west, at the beach of Arromanches-les-Bains, two French 19-year-olds were dressed as American G.I.s, one a medic, and one a paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne.
"It's a big deal," said Matthieu Mesnil, his face blackened with camouflage paint. "We don't want to miss this anniversary."
His friend, Theo Berton, said he had been a World War Two buff since "falling in love with a tank" at the age of three on a family trip to Normandy.
"Most young people don't know anything about the war, they don't care. They're into their iPhones, TV, their little comforts," said Berton. "I find that shameful."
Back at the American cemetery, the visitors' book continues to expand with signatures from as far away as Tennessee, Denver and Atlanta, even Russia, Sweden and Italy.
Many inscriptions are dedicated to grandfathers and fathers. "God Bless our Soldiers," and "Long Live Freedom" say many.
"I am humbled," says another.
(Editing by Stephen Addison)
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