This American Cemetery is the scene of the opening of Hollywood blockbuster Saving Private Ryan. It stands close to the town of Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Red Sector, Omaha Beach, Normandy.
The grave of Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, was only a prop but the cemetery does have a connection to the movie. It’s said that Fritz Niland may be the inspiration behind Private Ryan. His two elder brothers, both lost during the Normandy campaign, are buried at Colleville.
Also buried in the Normandy cemetery are two of President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons. One of the highest ranking men in the US Army and three recipients of the US Medal of Honor are also laid to rest here.
Visiting the American Cemetery
There are 9,387 burials here spread over 172 acres. This includes soldiers, sailors, airmen, women, and war correspondents. Most had their lives ended during the huge American effort during the Battle of Normandy. As well as the American graves, a Wall of the Missing lists 1,557 men missing in action. Rosettes mark the names of those who have since been recovered and identified.
The present-day cemetery occupies an area just to the east of the temporary St Laurent cemetery, established on 8th June 1944. It was the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II.
France has gifted the United States a concession to the land. This means that while the land remains French, the cemetery and memorial belong to the US government. The star-spangled banner flies overhead at all times.
The memorial consists of a semicircle colonnade. At each stand loggia with maps and stories of military operations. In the centre is the bronze statue of Spirit Of American Youth Rising From The Waves.
An orientation table overlooking the beach shows details of the landing beaches. The rows of white crosses face westwards, towards their native land. The paths cross in the shape of a Latin cross. The central chapel holds a black marble altar on which is the inscription:
I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.
During the war, families of those killed in Europe may have repatriated the bodies of loved ones. This was not always possible and many men were buried close to where they fell. The tens of thousands of headstones in Normandy represent only a proportion of the total number killed in 1944.
Frank D Peregory
One of the more illustrious men buried in the American cemetery at Colleville is Frank D Peregory. He received the US Medal of Honor for his actions in Normandy. His citation read like this:
On 8 June 1944, the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Infantry was advancing on the strongly held German defenses at Grandcamp-Maisy, France, when the leading elements were suddenly halted by decimating machine gun fire from a firmly entrenched enemy force on the high ground overlooking the town. After numerous attempts to neutralize the enemy position by supporting artillery and tank fire had proved ineffective, T/Sgt. Peregory, on his own initiative, advanced up the hill under withering fire, and worked his way to the crest where he discovered an entrenchment leading to the main enemy fortifications 200 yards away.
Without hesitating, he leaped into the trench and moved toward the emplacement. Encountering a squad of enemy riflemen, he fearlessly attacked them with hand grenades and bayonet, killed 8 and forced 3 to surrender. Continuing along the trench, he single-handedly forced the surrender of 32 more riflemen, captured the machine gunners, and opened the way for the leading elements of the battalion to advance and secure its objective. The extraordinary gallantry and aggressiveness displayed by T/Sgt. Peregory are exemplary of the highest tradition of the armed forces.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr
General Theodore Roosevelt is another Medal of Honor recipient buried at Colleville-sur-Mer. The eldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt died during the Normandy campaign. His younger brother, Quentin, was a pilot killed in action in World War One. In 1955, Quentin’s body was exhumed from Oise-Aisne and reburied next to his brother.
Unlike those of other nationalities, American cemeteries never close to the public. Apart from Christmas Day and New Years’ Day, you can visit the Colleville cemetery at any time. Over time, the cemetery has grown into a worldwide visitor attraction. A $30,000,000 visitor centre opened on 6th June 2007. It attracts around one million visitors each year.
The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer is one of fourteen US military burial grounds from World War Two on foreign soil. This post makes up part of our travel diary from the 70th-anniversary of D-Day in Normandy 2014.