U.S. soldiers rest in peace in France before old comrades' last D-Day tribute

Fri May 30, 2014 9:49am EDT
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By Alexandria Sage

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.   Continued...

A gardener trims the grass near a tombstone in the American War cemetery ahead of Memorial Day ceremonies in Colleville-sur-Mer, in this May 23, 2014 file picture.REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol/Files