Part I – The Visit
A visit to the beaches of Normandy, France is a humbling experience for all who walk in the footsteps of the watershed battle of the European Theatre of World War II. The raw emotion remains where 8,000 to 10,000 allied servicemen lost their lives in the D-Day invasion. In our recent visit to France, I insisted that we visit the beaches. I felt that it was my duty as an American to visit this hallowed ground and pay homage to the brave troops that secured freedom for so many. Little did I know that the visit was just the beginning of the journey.
We arrived in Normandy on June 21 and stayed the night in Caen, the largest city in that part of France. 85% of Caen was destroyed during WWII. Caen is also home to the Caen Memorial, a museum dedicated to the remembrance of the war. The next morning we began our visit to the beaches by driving away from Caen to see the sites making our way back to our hotel. Our first stop was Ste. Mere-Eglise, a small city off the coast that is best known for the paratrooper dummy that currently hangs from the bell tower. The dummy hangs today as a monument to the Allied paratroopers who descended on Normandy hours before the shoreline invasion. John Steele was the paratrooper who was trapped by his parachute from the bell tower.
From Ste. Mere-Eglise, we ventured to Utah Beach, which was one of two beaches that American troops landed on D-Day June 6, 1944. I found Utah Beach to be serene and beautiful. From the beach mound, barb wire keeps tourists out of restricted areas, but also provides the imagery of the shoreline defenses that our troops had to overcome. As I gazed into the horizon, my mind filled with the images of ships hovering off shore and imagining the landing of thousands of troops on to the very ground I was walking. Pointe-du-Hoc was the next stop down the coast from Utah Beach. Point-du-Hoc was attacked by the Allies to split the German defenses to prevent forces from Utah or Omaha beach to come to the aid of each other. One that fateful day the American forces scaled the striking 100-foot tall cliffs to take the position from the occupying force. At Pointe-du-Hoc I began to gain a feel for the battle, as the scars of war remain embedded in the landscape to this day. This small relatively small point into the English Channel is littered with craters from incessant bombing and happens to have the most intact display of German pillboxes and other fortifications on the beaches we visited. I consider it a must see for visitors to Normandy.
The brutality and horror of the battle at Omaha Beach was captured in the opening scenes of the epic film Saving Private Ryan. The five miles of Omaha Beach are lined with small, lazy villages. I also found Omaha Beach to be lined with contradictions. Omaha Beach appeared not only be a tourist destination, but as a place for locals to gather and enjoy the beach. The Hotel du Casino sits a feet from the beach at Vierville-sur-mer while fisherman trying their luck off the pier. Just down the road in St. Laurent-sur-mer, intermixed with the stoic war monuments, food trucks sold crepes, families played in the water; and a group of French folks were gathered along the Omaha Beach monument to enjoy the good weather and even broke into song. Processing the surreal scene where locals “hung out” on the very spot where thousands lost their lives left me a bit uneasy. Perhaps it was American arrogance providing me with fleeting thoughts that these people were not showing a proper amount of respect, or perhaps I was not able to understand how such an iconic place in our history and culture can coexist as a place for locals to can relax and hang out on a sunny afternoon.
My uneasiness was quickly set to the side as we moved on to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer. The cemetery sits atop a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and is the final resting place for over 9,000 U.S. troops who died during World War II. The vast rows of graves are marked by beautiful white marble Star of David and Latin cross markers in perfect alignment. Immediately upon entering the cemetery my stomach began to feel the gravity of the events of D-Day. This was not another random tourist attraction; this was something much bigger, much more intense.
American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer
In the cemetery I felt a vibe that appeared to be shared by other visitors, which can best described as solemn, but peaceful. The waves crashing into the beach below and breeze blowing through the trees provided a natural white noise soundtrack that lulled even the loudest of Americans into a state of quiet reflection, reluctant to talk above a whisper. The cemetery is separated into twelve plots, six on each side separated by a center pathway. We initially strolled down the center pathway at apprehensive pace, not sure where to start or how to begin. We walked about half way through the first plots when I suddenly gestured to my wife to go down a random row of markers on our left. The white marble markers appeared more beautiful in person than in pictures. The names, date of death, military attachment, and State of origin for each of the fallen have been preserved immaculately over the years, showing no signs of weathering. The first image that struck me was a rose adorn grave of the unknown. I thought about a family for all these years that did not have the peace of knowing where and when their loved one was put to rest. As I was snapping a picture of this marker, my wife called out “hey there is a Minnesota grave and hey…..it is a Hagen!!” I immediately walked a few paces down to check out the marker and low and behold there lied PFC. ALBIN B. HAGEN from Minnesota!
We continued our cemetery visit, all the while my natural instincts wondering “is this person related to me?” That evening I entered a quick Google search on Private Hagen to see what I could find. A military database pulled up PFC Hagen as hailing from Otter Tail County in Minnesota, the very same county where my late Grandpa Hagen was born. We were still in France and didn’t have the Internet access or computing power to investigate any further, but lingering thoughts danced in my head throughout the rest of our vacation. Just what led us down that random row? There had to be a reason that we stumbled upon this grave among the 9,000 other graves at the cemetery. Just who was PFC Hagen? Were we related? The only thing that was clear, was that my mission to find Private Hagen had begun.