Greg Keller: Jumping into Normandy, 70 years after D-Day

By Greg Keller

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This April 25, 2014 photo shows a U.S and a French flag at a headstone at the U.S cemetery, in Colleville sur Mer, western France. Local officials estimate that several hundred thousand tourists will flock to Normandy this summer, attracted by the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

David Vincent, Associated Press

COMMES, France — Weather in Normandy had been iffy for days. Showers and wind gave way to sunshine, then lightning storms over the sea.

We watched and waited for the signal to jump. With a window of only a few hours, I began to doubt our chances.

Finally the message my companions and I had been waiting for arrived: The jump was on.

Unlike the paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions who jumped into Normandy on D-Day 70 years ago, our orders came not from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but via text message from our paragliding instructor.

My wife and I had come to Normandy ahead of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings to explore the region's history, cuisine and culture.

I'd been to the U.S. military cemetery at Omaha Beach years before, a trip that's still a must for many Americans visiting France.

But this time we wanted to explore farther afield. We'd crisscross the region from the cheese-making town of Pont l'Eveque in the east to the isolated Gatteville Lighthouse in the west.

Near Omaha Beach, Claude Bellessort runs Elementair, a paragliding school in Port-en-Bessin. An expert pilot who's led paragliding excursions as far afield as Nepal and Morocco, Bellessort has offered tandem paragliding flights here since 2002.

The thrill of taking off from the cliff top and swooping over the beaches, imagining how it appeared on D-Day, made the 10-minute flight an unforgettable highlight of three days in Normandy.

Local officials estimate that the invasion anniversary will attract several hundred thousand tourists to Normandy this summer. The commemorations culminate June 6 in Ouistreham, where U.S. President Barack Obama, French president Francois Hollande and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will gather to remember the more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded that day.

We spent the night after our jump in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, a tiny village in Omaha Beach. This was one of the invasion's five famous landing areas spread over 50 miles (80 kilometers) of coast where 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops came ashore on D-Day. Omaha, where the U.S. 1st and 29th divisions landed, saw some of the day's bloodiest fighting.

To look out to sea here or at the nearby Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, and imagine the scene at dawn on June 6, 1944 is breathtaking: 5,000 landing ships and assault craft assembled in the largest armada in history lined up across the horizon.

Our host for the night was Sebastien Olard, 46, a bakery supply salesman and passionate amateur D-Day historian. Olard grew up in the village of 200 inhabitants on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Fifteen years ago he bought a stone house surrounded by a sheep pasture that village elders say was the first home liberated by American troops on D-Day. He's turned the home into a museum-cum-vacation rental called "La Maison de la Liberation" (House of the Liberation). For 80 euros, guests can overnight there and enjoy a history lesson.

Olard's grandfather, who lived in the neighboring village of Vierville-sur-Mer, feared a German counterattack after the invasion, and walked with his wife and children to Saint-Laurent to seek evacuation to Britain. "They had to step over bodies. My grandfather told his children, 'Don't worry, just walk. They're sleeping. Go!'" he recalled.

There are many D-Day museums in Normandy, so I narrowed our selection to two using a $5 smartphone app "Normandy D-Day 1944": the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum in Bayeux and the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Bayeux uses film, photographs and other artifacts to provide an overview of the battle. The Airborne Museum narrows the focus to paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines the night before the invasion; displays include one of the C-47 "Skytrain" aircraft that flew them from England.

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