D-Day: Retracing Grandfather's Steps at Normandy

"Darling, you must write me what all took place back home on D-Day. From all that we can hear it will be well remembered by all." These are the words my grandfather, Army First Sgt. John Samuel Colvin, wrote to my grandmother, Hazel, on June 23, 1944. "When I get home I will tell you about France, but not what took place. I don't think I will ever want to talk about war again."

At the time of the letter, Buddy—as we called him—was only two weeks removed from charging ashore in the first wave at Omaha Beach with the Fightin' 29th. As a boy, I idolized him and his wartime experience, and as a young man I always hoped that someday I'd find a way to travel with him back to Normandy. This was my own private fantasy, because my grandfather mostly kept his word when it came to talking about the war. In my childhood I was free to idealize his wartime experience to fit my imaginary world of Nazi-killing toy soldiers and Sgt. Rock comic books. I doubt now that he'd even have wanted to go, but I had this idea that we'd stand on the windswept beach and stare off into the distance together, teary-eyed and wistful and bonding across the generations.

My grandfather died in 1998, so that fantasy will never be realized. But I did finally get my chance to visit Normandy this summer and embarked on a pilgrimage in his honor. After the train ride to Caen from Paris and a short car trip through the beautiful French countryside, at last I drove over the crest of the hill and saw the beach where more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded.

What I found surprised me: overweight men prancing through the waves in tight Speedos and overweight women in no bathing suits at all. I found L'Omaha Beach Restaurant and cheesy souvenirs. And it was all in color. In my daydreams I half expected David McCullough would narrate as I walked along a sepia-toned beach, but instead I found squealing children playing with beach balls and tractors towing boats into the surf. From my perch on the rocks along the shore where Buddy landed, the waves looked calm. I got out my journal and pencil and sketched the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc off to my left, and I felt emotionless, hot, and mildly annoyed.

My grandfather shed blood near Vire, France, and received a Purple Heart for it—which he kept in a King Edward cigar box, like so many others of the Greatest Generation. During one of the few times he did talk to me about D-Day, he said it wasn't even the worst day of the war for him. The hedgerows on the way to St-Lô proved a tougher challenge. Later in the war he went 30 days without changing his socks. When he finally did get a new pair, he had to scrape the old ones off with a pocketknife.

His sacrifices extended beyond the battlefield. My mother, Joyce, was born on Dec. 30, 1941, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. My grandfather left his U.S. base for a quick visit to see her, and then didn't lay eyes on her again until the war was over. The impact of those years never really goes away for people who lived it. Saving Private Ryancame out the same year Buddy died, and my mom left the theater in tears during the opening D-Day battle scene, unable to watch the rest of the movie.

I spent some time after my trip to France reading through the hundreds of letters Buddy wrote home and found some insights into what it must have been like. I often had to read between the lines because he seemed so nonchalant. He was trying not to worry my grandmother too much. He always kept his Southern manners, too. In one he wrote that he was sorry if the letter looked dirty, because he'd just dug a foxhole. In another he was concerned about her because he learned she'd cut her finger making breakfast. This was two weeks after he'd stormed the cliffs at Normandy with the 116th Infantry Regiment's Stonewall Brigade. In my favorite letter, he recounted shooting a deer in the French countryside and how all the guys were glad to be eating venison cooked over a fire. I'm sure that made him feel a little bit more at home amidst the carnage.

I ended my day at Omaha Beach by climbing up the hill where he came ashore and worked my way to the German gun turret that is still in place. It's now a kind of museum piece where tourists pose for photographs. I walked up the narrow dirt trail behind the big gun until it became impassable because of twisted vines, which I soon realized were full of plump, ripe blackberries. I picked a handful, and when I ate the first one my eyes welled up. I was reminded of how I used to climb up into the hills with my grandfather back home in rural Virginia and how we'd fill up white plastic milk jugs with blackberries and then rush them home so my grandmother could make us a drop-biscuit cobbler. We'd sit on the cool front porch under the big trees and eat the warm pie, always with cold milk poured on top, and talk about baseball or fishing. He made it home, unlike so many of his friends, and he got the chance to have grandchildren and a long, full life. That's what he'd been fighting for all along.