Arromanches, NormandyPhoto credit Sydney Chandler



The Brittany American Cemetery in Saint James, lower Normandy, sits quietly just on the outskirts of the town of Saint James.

It is one of several sites in France operated by the ABMC, with this particular cimetière at the point where American forces broke through the hedgerows and rolling farmland on the Normandy/Brittany border during the offensive.

Poignant. Honor everywhere. 

It is the final resting place for 4,404 American war dead and another 500 unknowns, who rest under a canopy of well-groomed, now ‘elder’, flowering trees and hedgerows.

For us now, this place is the beginning of the story. 

For the war dead, it is the end of theirs.  

For François, a gardener of the grounds, it’s somewhere in between.  

All year long, locals, families of sons lost, relatives — they arrive … then depart. 

Some come seeking to know if their fallen loved one is here. The cemetery closes down, the crews come in to do DNA testing, and results provide answers — some which provide closure, some which do not.

It is a space of extraordinary peace — and sorrow.

In that mix, François sits at the crossroads of past and present. 

His daily commute is 10 minutes to the gates of the memorial, then hours daily of gardening maintenance, upkeep — and guests who come to this sacred ground seeking to find — and close — a life chapter.  

A gentle, unassuming man, he has spent more than half his life caring for the garden of this final home, and for the people who come to connect to something they’ve not been able to find for 80 years.

Fairly invisible to most, he stands as gatekeeper across a great divide, carrying the scars of war unwittingly. 

What is not unusual here is that the culture as a whole carries them too … 

An elder friend of mine who was a child here in our village when Patton barreled through in 1944, was scooped up onto the back of a U.S. Army truck full of soldiers. She didn’t know if she was going to live or die. One of them handed her a chocolate bar.

Or the letter tucked safely in another friend’s attic, from a young Resistance fighter. He was allowed to write a final letter to his family the night before his execution. In it, he told them his conscience was clear, he’d done the right thing, had no regrets, loved them dearly, and considered it no greater honor than how he had served France. She had the letter because the family found it too painful to have in the house. He was 19.

Scars of War: Counting the Days

Or neighbors who, when renovating their home, peeled back the wallpaper to discover scratchings of Roman numerals in the old wall plaster, counting off the days — of what? Hiding or being held prisoner.

History screams everywhere here; it’s alive

From Saint James, heading north to the D-Day Beaches, I went straight to Colleville-sur-Mer, home to the famous American Cemetery.

An agricultural region, with a population of less than 200, its hamlets and villages are a scattering of stone houses, farms and working fields that stretch and hover along the coastline. The two-lane country road winds along the shore through all of it. 

Landing Beaches Normandy

The ‘Landing Beaches’ cover a 50 mile stretch of this coast, from UTAH  (the village of Ste-Mére Église), heading east to JUNO (the village of Courseulles-sur-Mer) — the first French port to be liberated. 

With the blunt force entry of the Allies here, it was the local population who absorbed it. 

Rebuilt from destruction, they too live with it daily. 

Generations turn, and each next one inherits the torch.   

In my sifting through the all of it

There’s a way I was looking for some moment of illumination — until I realized we had that moment of illumination, time-dated 6 June 1944 on the Normandy Beaches in these tiny French villages when the Normandy Invasion commenced.

Aside from the annual anniversary when tens of thousands descend into the area and locals disappear, people come year-long to the American Cemetery in Colleville for the same reason they come to the Brittany American Cemetery in Saint James — or any of the war cemeteries, for that matter. 

They enter quietly, embrace the magnitude of what lays before them, and reflect. 

I arrived 5 June just before 6 am

American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer

Picking up my media press pass, I headed over to get the lay of the land.

Walking freely onto the grounds, staff were in final preparations for the 6th. Only a few were visible and they were on stage doing a sound check.  

No one was on the grounds except me and 10,000 war dead.

There was a profound sense of a consuming Presence. 

This isn’t to say that sense could be had only if the grounds were empty, but it was my introduction for what was to come.

On 6 June, the day began at 4 am

I’d packed all necessities for a long day the night before, and gave myself an hour to drive the coastal road to The American Cemetery, given the constant nagging threat of dreadful bottlenecks.

The road was empty. Light was just rising off the fields. It took 15 minutes to be ushered through the checkpoints with my green-light passes perched on the dashboard.

It then took two hours to stand in line with maybe 100 other media staff, on a service road’s side entry to the cemetery, where we waited to go through the final security check. 

Media Security Check, American Cemetery

All media technology sacks and crates were dumped to our left for Lord, a noble German Shepherd, to do first pass. He was impressive. Next … fully-wired FBI and Secret Service agents ushered us through. They were thorough.

Another 10 minute walk along the gravel road to reach the side access path onto the grounds, and there I was.

American Cemetery D-Day, Colleville-sur-Mer

Today was different

Early arrivals were finding their seats. People were milling about. Sentinels from all branches of the military were wherever you turned; Rangers, Green Berets, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard — each one ready to help whoever was walking past them. They were young, friendly, ready and sharp. Did I mention meticulous? That, too.

Staging platforms on the right for all major networks were in last-minute preparations to receive their guests for interviews. Coming in? Tom Hanks. Departing? U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. 

I was taken to the southwest side of the stage, close to the front, early enough to choose where to set-up for the duration — that would be top-tier of the bleachers. There were no chairs. Given 10,000 were already positioned for guests, they were sparse. Off I went. Behind a cloaked speaker tower were two folded chairs laying on the ground. I picked one up, turned to the Army Ranger standing guard, and said, ‘Is this chair available,’ to which he said, ‘I don’t see why not.’

This was 9 am. The ceremony wasn’t to start for three more hours. Those three hours were spent people-watching. Senators, members of Congress, wives and husbands, accompanying staff, dignitaries, military brass in dress uniform — all walked by to take front row seats. 

Families of the Fallen silently gathered to find their chairs. 

One young woman with three small children; her son perhaps 11, her daughter around 7 years of age, and a toddler constantly running off, to be chased. It was the daughter who caught my eye. Lost in a sea of people, dressed in navy blue with a wide-pleated skirt and matching shoes, her hair pulled back in a long ponytail with a dangling red ribbon, she wore the red poppy on her collar. Her father was missing. Her grandfather had stepped in. Her demeanor was — vulnerable.

Military families, service members and unseen security forces in the midst of all of us mingled, chatted, and took stock. Celebrities like everyone else, went invisible. Nothing this day was about any of them. It was about all of us.

Slowly, the seats filled.

It began quietly

With the first veterans being escorted down the blue ramp to take their places, center stage, were the men who had taken part in the D-Day landing. Once we saw them coming, all 10,000 stood and applauded. And so it continued; for one hour, one by one, each and every veteran present was honored. Applause would move like a wave, from front to back or back to front of the cemetery as the next man came forward. 

The vets were silent.

When President and Dr. Biden, President and Madame Macron next walked to the front of the group and took their places, the first wave of emotion moved through the crowd as President Macron welcomed the veterans home. This was closure for all of them amidst global recognition and acknowledgement. 

They remained silent.

There were heroes everywhere

  • The story of John Spalding and Phillip Streczyk, who commanded 32 men as part of the first wave to land on Omaha Beach (Vierville-sur-Mer), was told.

The recorded story is easy to find; they landed, crawled, fought, dodged bullets, then turned around to find their men — and discovered there were only a few of them left.

In that moment, then and there, they decided to stop looking back, and took only to looking forward. 


They were the first to open/secure the pathway for the first wave on to Omaha Beach, for the thousands of men behind them. 

  • In front of me were two men working in tandem; one, the personable and unassuming cameraman/tech genius. The other? Special Forces Green Beret Fran Racioppi, Creator of the Jedburgh Podcast (now merged with the Green Beret Foundation and known as the Jedburgh Media Channel.) 

Many don’t know about Operation Jedburgh — Special Ops groups worked with Resistance fighters, empowering them to disrupt & distract behind the front lines. When you watch this video, with Brig. General Guillaume Beaurpere, you’ll understand the Jedburghs. 

  • Or Monsieur Jean-Lionel Coste …. The top bleacher was full but for one small space to my right. A Frenchman, on the lower bleacher, looked at me and asked to put his chair next to mine. There was room for just that, and up he came. 

French Air Force Pilot Jean-Lionel Coste

His father, who died two years ago at the age of 99, was in the French Air Force, and piloted planes that dropped smoke bombs on Omaha Beach 6 June 1944. 

Jean-Lionel, like his father, was in the French Air Force. He served delivering humanitarian drops into Kosovo, Afghanistan and Rwanda. Though retired, he devotes his time to the Rozanoff Museum at the air base in Mont de Marsan, in southwest France. 

He had promised his father he would come to the 80th on his behalf. When the veterans were ushered onstage, emotions ran high. In one sheer personal moment, in the most minutely, huge way possible, by the side of a French Air Force stranger, we grieved. 

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things everywhere.


President Macron set about to award the highest honor of France for excellent military service, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur Française

One by one, he knighted 11 American veterans into the Order of the French Foreign Legion. Embracing each man, he moved from one to the next, with President Biden. 

They struggled to get out of their chairs yet all of them insisted on standing to receive knighthood. We all stood silently, awash in common dignity, as witnesses. So did the world beyond the grounds of Colleville-sur-Mer. 

Again … that consuming Presence.

It all came full circle with the reading of The Watch

With the veterans behind her, Presidents of the free world to her right, including President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, military comrades everywhere, and all of us in front of her, Lieutenant Commander Katherine Miyamasu addressed them personally, to let them know they could ‘stand down.’

‘American World War II Veterans, you stand relieved. 

We Have the Watch.’

You’ll find the entire ceremony, if you have not already, on your favorite stream. I include this coverage of moving moments.

I reflected on

One of my journeys into the South of France — to the BnB I stayed in when visiting Oradour-sur-Glane, a village just west of Limoges where, on 10 June 1944, the entire population, in an act of revenge, was massacred by the Nazis and the village burned — 642 men, women and children.

DeGaulle, when visiting after, said ‘leave it just as it is.’ 


Look closely at what’s left here of the entry to a home, café and coiffeur.

When one visits Oradour, it too is alive.

The propriétaire asked where I’d be going from there, and when I said Oradour, he winced, frowned, and said ‘What would you want to do that for. It’s so depressing.’

There’s a blanket response

News and banners annually frame these anniversaries and other living memorials as a ‘remembrance’ — which they are — but that misses the mark. 

When I review any of the media, including my own clips and photos of D-Day, I find it’s always one layer removed … a ‘not having to’ viscerally deal with it … a quiet and relieving disassociation.  You can put it in a box, remember it once a year, then forget about it. 

Not quite yet 

Sitting in the midst of it all, with the undercurrent afoot presenting itself over and over again, we are not just remembering.

We are active participants in heading home to Peace on Earth. 

It’s hard to miss, that we as a global entity, still live as if everything and everyone is at peace forever — but that’s because war has not yet reached the doors where peace still dwells.

What does it take to ensure we continue to live here now as we do. 

This global ceremony held an ineffable silent force on the cliffs and hallowed ground of Colleville-sur-Mer, 6 June 2024, to stand as witness. And, there was something uniquely given to us by being there in person; something that only happens by showing up. 

It’s why people do.