The Normandy coastline of France is a quiet, peaceful place. There are more cows than people. The grass is green and sheep graze. Dairy farming is the primary occupation for young and old alike.
The sky is gray today, and the wind, when the gusts pick up, has a bone-chilling effect. It is a constant companion and so are the Medevil-like bunkers, part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall along Normandy. The bunkers, some small, some massive, are visible from the beach, known as Utah Beach.
You see the bunkers everywhere you look and walk. In fact, farmland still has to be de-mined for plowing because of bombs dropped and shells fired 61 years ago.
The beach is long and wide. It rises up to a countless line of dunes, natural and beautiful. Today, March 10th, it is low tide. The water seems miles away from the dunes. Empty mussel shells dot the shore, the black shells a stark contrast to the pearl-like sand. Our family has made a pilgrimage to Utah to pay homage to Dad and to understand more clearly the sacrifice he and the 70th tank battalion courageously made on June 6, 1944.
I arrived in France with more questions than answers. I left with what I needed to know and learn.
Answers to deep questions take time and reflection – they lead to tears and voices heard from people you have never met and people you meet just for a brief period of time. It is in such a rhythmic movement that conclusions are made in the waning hours of the day. In Normandy, my conclusions were reached walking along the beach and reading journals in our 18th-century hotel, ironically, a refuge for German officers before the war.
Our guide for the Normandy trip is a 42-year-old Frenchman named Francois. He knows Utah Beach and the surrounding countryside like the back of his hand. Francois identified the area where he believed Dad’s tank was hit by an 88mm shell. Francois concluded that with St. Mere Eglise captured by the 82nd Airborne, Dad’s tank battalion moved south to begin the Cherbourg assault.
In Crisbec, France, on June 9th, a fierce German counterattack was launched. According to Francois, Dad’s M4 Sherman tank was most likely moving through dense hedgerows and open fields when the deadly 88mm shell reached its target.
We drove to ground zero of the battle. The German bunkers were still hauntingly placed behind the hedgerows. Some were covered by grass. Looking down into the bunkers, I observed rusty ladders and bullet holes. Closing my eyes, I expected the guns to start roaring at any moment. I imagined the voices. The research showed that our Army Rangers had been dropped in the area only to be stuck in the trees. The Rangers were shot or bayoneted and were left hanging there, in horror, for our men to see.
Our guide provided me a book of accounts about the compelling first days of Utah Beach. The writings were from 19- and 20-year-old boys who witnessed what my Dad saw. In one account, a soldier says he saw a Sherman tank blown up by an 88mm. A GI writes about spending time with the 70th tank battalion after a fire fight had left several Sherman tanks in flames. The young GI writes, “It is hell out there.”
The hell Dad saw had a profound effect on him. He protected us from these repercussions by not telling us all the details. “It was hell out there.” This is the message Dad wanted me to hear. He saw it, felt it, endured it. And, for good reason, it is why he did not long to go back to Normandy.
While on Utah Beach with the family, my wife, Claire, had a beautiful thought. She said, “Let’s write in the sand ‘Ed Jackson was here, June 6, 1944.’” So, we found a stick and Virginia, our oldest daughter, wrote the words on the beach. We put a heart over the 1944 date. It was afternoon and now in between tides. We had the beach to ourselves, so we thought.
Suddenly, out from the dunes, a mile away, a man appeared with a horse while sitting in an attached buggy. Whip in hand, he and the horse were on the move and heading straight toward us. At a split second, the horse and buggy, at full stride, went directly over the words we had scrolled in the sand. Yet the message remained intact, just a slight smudge from the buggy wheel over the June 1944 date. It happened so quickly – the horse, the man, and the sounds of galloping feet, the breath of the beast.
In retrospect, there was something freeing about it all. The scene symbolized life at its fullest and best, punctuating vividly the message we had written to Dad in the sand.
God speaks to us in uncanny experiences: a message conveyed by a person, a symbol, a passage of writing or a seemingly whimsical event like a horse and buggy. In these experiences, God’s invisibility becomes visible.
Upon reflection, I believe Dad was speaking to us on the beach: He was saying, “Son, I’m okay. Life goes on. Move forward. Cherish family. Don’t look back forever. Step into your pain to experience gain. The best is yet to come.”
As I walked to the car, my feet heavy and heart soft, I placed some sand from Utah Beach in a sealed cup for my brothers. Francois told us the area between the dunes where I retrieved the sand was specifically cut out for the tanks that landed on June 6.
Before leaving the spot, I gave Utah Beach one more precious look. The sun was peeking through the clouds for the first time.
We all had the same realization on March 10, 2005.
Dad was here.
Dad is here.