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A sign near where World War II turned in the Allies favor, after a bloody assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. / Marco della Cava, USA TODAY

VIERVILLE-SUR-MER, France - In an effort to prolong summer, we recently took our kids to a beach. The French have long dubbed it la plage d'or, for the golden hue of its fine sand. We Americans know it simply as Omaha Beach.

What happened here 70 summers ago may not need any more words. The volumes written about D-Day can fill a library, and I primed our trip with everything from Stephen Ambrose's epic D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II to Douglas Brinkley's stirring The Boys of Point du Hoc.

But it's impossible to visit this part of the Normandy coast and not feel compelled to testify about the fateful day when 150,000 troops came ashore here to change the course of history.

The tide was out that morning. Troop carriers churned through the rough Atlantic surf and, touching bottom, lowered their ramps. Young men saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear started the dash across this beach to the bluffs. Most never made it, cut down by German machine gun fire that didn't stop for six hours when ammunition ran out.

As I crouch down and gather the sand of Omaha Beach, I tell myself there's no way I could ever come here and frolic. No books, documentaries or movies can prepare you for the flood of emotion that accompanies an understanding of both the magnitude of the sacrifice and the difficulty of the task.

In tiny Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where the 101st Airborne parachuted in behind enemy lines, a dummy of a paratrooper still hangs from the church spire. A few soldiers met their deaths this way, stranded before they could even get boots on the ground.

Others died when their flimsy gliders crashed into towering hedgerows that even today make a walk down a Normandy back road feel like a stroll through a high-walled maze. You imagine the fear: Who's lurking behind the bend, friend or foe?

Then there's Pointe du Hoc, a perilous 100-foot outcropping of rock that Army Rangers scaled and ultimately secured. It's one thing to read about this almost suicidal mission. It's another to stand on the edge of northwest France and peer straight down to the ocean and think about the stuff it took to pull it off.

Although World War II was won by the Allies, for many U.S., British, Canadian and French troops, their personal battles ended in Normandy. At the American Cemetery and Memorial, nearly 10,000 of our troops rest on a bluff over the Atlantic. As final resting places go, few are more beautiful. Manicured lawns, fragrant roses and salty breezes. But small recompense.

Our older son, who is 13, seemed a bit shell shocked by it all. On Omaha, he whispered to me that now he really understood what they were trying to show at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks and his fellow Rangers come under withering fire. "I can't imagine it," he said.

But they were just ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things. Hanks himself acknowledged as much when I recently spoke to him about a typing app he had helped develop. At the end of our conversation, I mentioned our impending trip to Normandy. The normally bubbly actor got quiet.

"Yes, that's a holy place," said Hanks. "I remember walking along Omaha Beach looking for the guys we played, and suddenly there I saw a plaque on a concrete retaining wall to the 1st Rangers, A, B and C Company. And there we were, Charlie Company. It was a real magic moment."

In his tone was the tacit acknowledgment that whatever bravery his acting had conjured on screen was dwarfed by that displayed by the real heroes.

As my son carefully placed a bit of Omaha Beach in a glass bottle, I saw a little girl doing cartwheels by the water's edge. And I realized I had been wrong: Celebrating life is what all of us should do if we visit this place, and visit we should.

Turn a cartwheel, swim in the ocean, share a kiss at la plage d'or. Those who gave their lives to liberate this beach and this world from tyranny would expect nothing less.

Della Cava covers technology and culture for USA TODAY from San Francisco



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: Summer at Omaha Beach

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