The Invasion of Normandy: The Dead
In the center of Omaha or Western American beach sector, the ground is fairly flat for perhaps two hundred yards, then rises sharply in a series of hills which command both the beach and the valley exits from it. Here the land levels off and fields, bordered with hedgerows, stretch back inland towards the little town of Colleville-sur-Mer and the Cherbourg road. In June 1944, if you followed the slender white tape through the mined areas up one of these hills, it was not long before you found yourself in a different world.
This was because it really belonged to the dead, and because the transition from the active clatter and dust of the beach was so abrupt. This field, high over the Western American beach, became the first U.S. national cemetery on French soil of World War II. Up here the beach sounds were faint and the German prisoners digging graves seemed to be unaware of them. Over the field there was the sound of pick and shovel and the oppressive, sickening stench of corpses, brought in for burial in truckloads, each wrapped in a mattress cover with his I.D. tag and a little bag of personal belongings to be sent to his next of kin. In the center of the field, the diggers worked in a new section while a guard with a tommy gun looked on with expressionless features. One soldier who spoke German went around with a long stick for measuring the depth of graves and gave instructions with a great concern for details.
The work had a steady, slow and appalling rhythm. At intervals a corpse was borne on a stretcher by four Germans to a freshly dug grave and lowered without ceremony, then the earth was shoveled in again. Some of the prisoners stopped work for a moment and watched as this was going on. Others mechanically went on with digging.
In this picture a truck has come back from the front, the vehicle brutally and grimly called the "meatwagon," and prisoners take off the corpses, laying them side by side, row on row while darkness set in over the field.
It was a cold, drizzly morning and at the cemetery above the beach a little group huddled around a fire. One of the men carries a long stick for measuring the depth of the graves, the others acted as guards for German prisoner of war grave-diggers, who form a dreary frieze in the background of this scene. On such a day the men found a little comfort in companionship and the tiny warmth of the fire. Then too, the smell of wood smoke was better than that other smell. Just beyond the group around the fire are some dead in their mattress cover shrouds, awaiting burial.
This scene was in the Omaha beach sector at the burial ground on one of the hills overlooking the beach.