Colleville-s-Mer – “This is sacred ground,” said Sid Salomon.
We were standing in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, in the midst of a sea of 9,387 marble crosses and Jewish stars. We were in Section J, Row 6 in front of the marble cross etched with the following words:
Henry S. Golas
1 SGT 2 RANGER BN
RHODE ISLAND June 6, 1944
“This is why I come here,” Sid said as he saluted his fellow Ranger. Sid and Golas landed together, in the same landing craft, on D-Day.
Sid – a 1st Lt. – was wounded, survived and led his men across the beach and up a cliff to overrun the entrenched German soldiers. Golas was hit as soon as he leapt off the landing craft and didn’t make it.
The beaches of Normandy really are sacred ground, and make for an emotional, educational and important bike trip. One you should consider. I’ve ridden through this area three times, and visited a fourth, sans velo, with Sid and about 15 other members of the Ranger 2nd Battalion (Companies A to F and HQ) back in 1999. I was on assignment for the newspaper I was working for at the time, the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer, Sid’s “home town” paper. We’d met the year before, when I invited him to see Saving Private Ryan and wrote a column about the experience.
And so, this ride, my favorite Normandy ride, has a bit of an emotional element for me. I can’t help but think about Sid (who died in 2005), all the other Rangers I met, and the men, like Golas, who lost their lives here.
I must start off by saying that, overall, Normandy – in and around and along the D-Day beaches – is not the best cycling region in France. It’s pretty average as French regions go. The geography is flat and filled with fields and farms, and there aren’t many towns or hilltop villages made of stone to stop in or stay in for a night or two. It’s rural, really, really rural, but quiet if you stick to the smaller roads with less traffic. This ride, and the region, is all about D-Day, which is a great reason to cycle here.
On my first two visits, Normandy was part of longer trips, as I headed west, into the heart of Brittany. On my third, most recent visit, Susan and I stayed in Bayeux and did a series of day trips. Bayeux and Caen are two best places to settle in and do day trips from. Caen is the bigger of the two, Bayeux is closer to the main D-Day sights and a little less hectic (which is why I prefer it). Bayeux is where the British Cemetery is located, has a wonderful cathedral, plenty of hotels and restaurants and the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry is about 1,000 years old and tells the story of the “other” invasion of the nearby beaches.
Here’s my favorite Normandy ride/route, 50-miles along the coast and Omaha Beach …
Off we go
This ride begins at the train station in Bayeux, and a 30-minute train ride west to Carentan. I’ve stayed here before, and Carentan is a nice base to explore Utah beach and Ste-Mere-Eglise, the town where the American paratrooper got stuck on the church steeple.
Most of the local trains in France have a special “velo” car with hooks for your bike. When you get to the station in Carentan, you’re on the outer track, which means you have to climb up and across the elevated bridge to get to the station and then into and out of town. It’s a bit of a challenge when you’re wearing your clip-ins and carrying a bike. Tread carefully.
Head east to La Cambe, where you’ll see a sign for the Deutscher Soldatenfreidhof Cimitiere Militaire Allemand (German Soldier’s Cemetery). This cemetery – the final resting place for 21,145 German soliders – is not visited as much as the American and British cemeteries. I’d never been here until my most recent trip. It’s worth a visit, and a reminder of how devastating war is for both sides.
From the German cemetery, it’s on to Grandcamp-Maisy on the coast. This is the town where the Rangers stayed during all their reunion visits. The people of the town welcomed them “home” as heroes and put them up in their houses. I stayed with the guy who ran the caramel shop in town. There’s one hotel and a Ranger museum in Grandcamp.
The Greatest Generation
As you ride east, out of Grandcamp on the D514, you’ll ride past a small World War II memorial dedicated to Leonard Lomell and the Rangers. It has an American flag, a photo of Lomell and reads: “In memory of Leonard G. Lomell and the 225 American soldiers who, on June 6th, 1944 assaulted and destroyed the 5 German guns at Pointe du Hoc. By the morning of June 8th, only 90 were still able to bear arms. They gave proof of their great courage. We will never forget them.”
Leonard “Bud” Lomell (of D Company) was on the 1999 trip. He’s the Ranger who organized the reunion trips. They returned every five years, fewer and fewer men each time, as age and illness took their toll, until finally, the reunions ended.
Lomell (who died in 2011) is perhaps the most famous Ranger. He found and destroyed the big German guns near the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, and is profiled in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation book.
Pointe du Hoc
This is the most famous of the D-Day sights: the impossibly high, steep cliffs the Rangers of D, E and F companies, and some members of HQ Company, climbed. At the top, the Germans were hunkered down in heavily fortified, concrete bunkers.
There’s a large parking lot and visitor’s center. The biggest issue, for cyclists, is the long walk from the parking lot to the visitor’s center to the cliffs – in your clip-ins. So, bring a pair of “regular” shoes with you. This is something I finally figured out on in the midst of my last trip as I clanked my way to the cliffs.
As you walk along the path, toward the cliffs, there’s a series of signs profiling several soldiers. And, to my surprise – there was one for Sid! It was a bit emotional to see a photo of my friend, and read these words:
The first man off his craft, First Lieutenant Sidney Salomon led his men against a network of German defenses on the bluffs above Omaha Beach. At the top, Salomon ordered his Rangers to clear out the German trench networks. Despite heavy fire, they eliminated the enemy defenses. Of the 39 men that landed with him, Salomon was one of nine that made it to the last trench. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on D-Day.
When you go by the plaque, throw Sid a salute. FYI: He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and I attended the ceremony.
A special memorial
On the 1999 trip, David Lisko brought with him the ashes of his father, Louis Lisko, a communications specialist with HQ Co. Louis Lisko had died 10 months earlier. And, with several of his father’s Ranger buddies surrounding him, David scattered his father’s ashes over the edge of the cliff where his father had landed.
David Lisko had gone with his father on the 1984 reunion trip. “I’d heard about Pointe du Hoc all my life,” he said. “But that was my first opportunity to see it, and after being there, it really struck home what he’d been through. That day, as we walked along the cliffs, he showed me where he’d set up the command post, where he operated the signal lamp and told the destroyers where to fire.”
Frank South was a Ranger medic on D-Day and landed at Pointe du Hoc.
“There was a machine gun on our right flank we couldn’t locate,” he told me. “We suffered a lot of casualties from that monster. And there were grenades, we called them potato mashers, because they looked like potato mashers, coming down from the top.”
As you stand there, atop the cliffs, near the bombed out, but still standing German bunkers, you can’t help but think: How the hell did the Rangers make it to the top?
Pointe et raz de la Percee
From Pointe du Hoc, get back on the D514 and head east. After about 2 kilometers, you’ll hit Pointe et Raz de la Percee. It’s hard to find, as there’s no town here and no sign, but this is where Sid and C Company landed on D-Day. And so, I always stop here.
“As we ran up the beach a mortar shell fell right behind me and killed or wounded most of my mortar section,” Sid said. “The blast knocked me face first into the sand and there was shrapnel in my back.”
In Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character was captain of C Company of the Ranger 2ndBattalion. Yep, Sid’s company. A few days after D-Day, Sid was promoted to captain of B Company.
A D-Day miracle
The Ranger A and B companies landed a little further east, near the town of Vierville-sur-Mer.
Ed O’Connor (who passed away in 2006) was in A Company. “As soon as the ramp went down, guys were getting hit with machine gun fire,” he said. “I jumped off to the left, we were trained never to jump straight off, and the guys were falling down all around me,”
He raced across the beach, and took aim at where the German machine gun fire was coming from. “She didn’t work,” he said. “All that training and my M1 didn’t work. I looked at her and the stock was splintered. A German had put one right on my chest and my gun saved my life.”
The American Cemetery is a couple kilometers east of Vierville. It’s vast, incredibly green and you really do get the sense this is a sacred, special place.
In the Visitor Center was a green sign with white lettering caught my eye. It read: “Henry S. Golas entered the service from Rhode Island. At the time of his death on June 6, 1944, he held the rank of First Sergeant (U.S. Army) and was serving in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He was awarded the Purple Heart.”
He went by Steve, and was quite popular with his fellow Rangers. “He had just graduated from college,” Sid said. “All through training, everywhere he went, he had a magazine in his pocket. Whenever we had a break, even if it was for 10 minutes, he’d pull it out. One day, all the guys in his platoon pulled out magazines. To emulate him.”
Golas was Sid’s platoon sergeant, but was promoted to first sergeant for the entire Ranger 2nd battalion a few days before D-Day. This meant he didn’t have to go in on the first wave of landing craft with Sid and the other members of C Company. However, Golas was determined to land with his buddies.
“He came to me pleading,” Sid remembered. “He said, ‘Sid, I don’t want to leave the platoon.’ I said, ‘Steve, you’re a career soldier; take the promotion and I’ll go and see the commanding officer and see what I can do.”
Sid was able to get Golas on his landing craft and ordered him to sit in the back, where he thought he’d be safes. On D-Day, there was no such thing as a safe spot. “Although we had the best training, it’s not skill that I’m here,” Sid said. “It’s luck. He was just as well training as I was, but he wasn’t as lucky.”
A port in a storm
Head east, through Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, to Arromanches-les Bain.
The British built a protected port on D-Day. They towed in old ships that they then sunk, as well as giant slabs of concrete they set in place, forming a semi-circular break around Arromanches. This was the main supply spot for D-Day and the days immediately after. By June 12, more than 300,000 soldiers, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies landed here.
You can still see the protective, semi-circular pattern of the man-made barrier out in the water.
Just west of town, along the water, is an old German bunker. It’s worth a look, to get an idea of how well entrenched the Germans were, which in turn, made it so damn difficult and dangerous for the Brits who landed here and built a port while under fire.
There are restaurants and cafes in Arromanches, which makes it a nice spot for lunch. There’s also the Musee du Debarquement, which tells the story of Arromanches.
It’s back to Bayeux for the last segment of this ride. Head through the really small villages of Ryes and Sommervieu, and, as you approach Bayeux, there’s a cool view of the town and cathedral off in the distance …