Yesterday, with Avalon Creativity docked for a second day in lovely Rouen, Alex and I visited the D-Day Landing Beaches and the American Cemetery.
For the two-plus-hour drive to the coast of Normandy, I had downloaded Saving Private Ryan on my iPad. Watching the movie was a fitting way to introduce a 15-year-old boy to what we would see, complementing the World War II history he had studied in school.
Our first stop: the D-Day Museum in Arromanches. The museum was so crowded that it was disappointing. There were passengers from at least two river cruise vessels, a big group from Oceania Cruises, and other tourists, so many people as to give new meaning to the Landing Beach invasion.
The museum was standing-room only, and all of us were vying to see two short films in two small rooms about the D-Day Invasion. Alex and I tolerated the crowds for several minutes, then squeezed through a stream of people still entering the museum to make our exit. It was simply too difficult to adequately appreciate.
Arromanches was pleasant enough, however. We looked out on the artificial harbor, which had been taken across the English Channel with the invading army in sections and assembled here to offload cargo and supplies to support the invasion. Alex walked out on the beach. When we returned 45 minutes later, the entire beach was underwater in this region where tides rise and fall more than 50 feet.
Avalon Waterways had provided us with voucher for sandwiches, pastry-like desserts and drinks. The sandwich, a baguette with ham, cheese and tomato, was good, but we tossed the desserts and had ice cream later down the street.
Our next stop was Pointe du Hoc, which made quite an impression on Alex, with its fortified bunkers, bomb craters and the Ranger Monument. When our guide informed us that German recruits could be as young as 14 years old, it occurred to me that they were one year younger than my son, who was playing in the bunkers. What a different life he has than those German boys in the early 1940s.
We visited Omaha Beach, then the American Cemetery. While walking through the cemetery, Alex and I proposed that we would go all the way to the end of the rows of nearly 10,000 graves and work our way back. The distance appeared to be the length of several football fields.
The walk was a poignant and long as we passed rows and rows of white crosses (and some markers with the Star of David.) At the grave of one unknown soldier Alex stopped to lay a rose at the foot of the cross and to say a prayer. He told me later that the cemetery made him sad because so many young men lost their lives. Seeing the rows of grave markers, that point is probably lost on no one.
Once we arrived at the end of the rows, we walked laterally to a row closer to the sea to work our way back. One of the first grave markers we saw stopped us in our tracks. The name on it: Garnie L. Grizzle.
Who was this soldier who shared our last name? We knew little about him from the marker. We could deduce that he was wounded during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, and died a week after the invasion, on June 13, 1944. How was he wounded? Did he have hopes that he would recover from his wounds and return to his homeland?
Later, back on the bus, I was able to find out a little about him by using my iPhone to access the US War Memorial website. Garnie L. Grizzle was a US Army private who came from Union, Georgia. That’s about all that the website offered. How old was he when he died? We don’t know. How did he die? Did he have family? All unanswered questions.
What we do know is that on June 6, 1944, Garnie L. Grizzle was alive, just like us. A week later, the young man was dead, a hero, I like to think, of an invasion that changed history.
Alex was proud of our discovery. On his Facebook page, he wrote: It’s not everyday that you find someone with the last name Grizzle at the D-Day cemetery.
The moment bonded us, as had many other moments on this trip. We started the journey on June 30, cruising on Crystal Cruises from Istanbul to Monte Carlo, then spending four days in France before boarding Avalon Creativity for a seven-day river cruise that encompassed art, culture and history between Paris and Rouen.
The day at the American Cemetery was perhaps one of the most bonding days and a poignant one that will forever leave us wondering about the young man who lived sharing our last name and died as one of many who lost their lives freeing France and changing the course of history.
We certainly didn’t expect to find the grave of Garnie L. Grizzle, but as on so many journeys, discovery often comes to those who do nothing more than follow their instincts and trust the guiding hand of fate.