A brother and sister retrace their ancestors’ brave steps on the shores of Normandy.

By Ellen McGauley
November 08, 2017
Omaha Beach
Photo: Shutterstock/Picsfactory

The Normandy Coast, France
The forecast predicts rain. Misty, windswept days that will hover in the high 50s, maybe stretch into the 60s before the sun dips back into the North Atlantic. It doesn't surprise me—the northwest coast of France being more fickle London than tipsy Riviera in mid-spring. I remind my brother, Patrick, to pack layers and an umbrella. Now he is no more going to bring an umbrella than I'm going to bring a bikini, but he's the youngest behind four sisters (I am the second), so I have to say it, and he has to hear it.

Ellen and her brother, Patrick
Photo: Ellen McGauley

But even if my weather app had gotten the Normandy temps right, I'm not sure that I would have packed any differently. The landing beaches in my mind are gray and sober, a coastline that holds its history like a cloud that never really bursts. We are here to trace our family's footsteps.

Our grandmother Josephine grew up in a steel town in upstate New York, down the street from her cousins. Four of them were boys. The two Irish families interlaced through the 1930s and "40s, playing sports together and sharing rides to school. When the war began, six boys from the two families enlisted together: all four cousins and two of Josephine's brothers. Of her cousins, Preston, Robert, and Fritz Niland went to Europe, and Edward to the South Pacific. In May of 1944, Edward's plane was shot down over Burma, and he was presumed dead. Robert fell on June 6, D-Day, and Preston was killed the following day. Fritz dropped in by parachute behind enemy lines, but found his way back to his unit and was ordered home—a move that inspired the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Edward thankfully turned up alive after spending a year in a POW camp. Josephine's brothers, Joe and Tom, also came home.

The tribute to the men of Ellen's family, in Normandy
Photo: Ellen McGauley

This part of our history wasn't something Patrick and I knew much about growing up. Perhaps it dimmed in the spotlight of younger wars—uncles and aunts in Vietnam and Korea, which folded into Patrick and a handful of our cousins leaving for the Middle East and Africa. It's as if our story, like so many others, kept clicking on to the next frame.

We are here to slow the reel and wind it back a little.

It is close to 70 degrees when we arrive at Utah Beach, and the ocean is as still as a reflecting pool, a shallow aqua ribbon that dissolves into a field of sapphire. The horizon is pencil thin. From the dunes, we watch a sulky horse and its driver roll by, dodging only a tidal creek threading a shallow trench to the sea. They are the only ones on the sand. Webs of barbed wire still weave through the sea grass, like craggy metal shadows of the German army.

Inside a concrete-and-glass museum built into the dunes, Patrick peers into a "Duck" amphibious truck while I huddle around television monitors. The voices of gritty octogenarian soldiers leap from their speakers: Some recount near-misses with the enemy with all the wit and color of schoolboys, while others roll through their accounts, slow and thoughtful. Each seems to credit his success to the bravery of someone else: another man, another unit.

I ask Patrick about this later over drinks, my question as basic as it gets. "I don't understand bravery," I say. "What do you tell yourself?" I've always felt the grit in our blood. But true courage—the kind that shocks the nerves and sends you forward into something hot—feels like a sleeper in my own DNA.

"That's what training is for," he tells me, as if that's all there is to it. It's part of it, I'm sure, but not all of it, and I tell him that, as if I'm suddenly our new expert on bravery.

The next day, at Omaha Beach, we zigzag down an immense, grassy hill and wander through bunkers, dank and cloaked in an inch of muddy water. There's an enormity to this beach, as if it's swelled over time to match its foothold in history. When we reach the sand, I watch my brother turn and look back up at the hill. The distance between the bunkers and the shoreline is breathtaking.

Ellen at the Normandy American Cemetery
Photo: Ellen McGauley

The Normandy American Cemetery is on the adjacent bluff, 170 acres gifted by the French to bury our more than 9,000 fallen soldiers. This is American soil. On the northern side are the Latin crosses marking the graves of Preston and Robert. The grass has worn thin from visitors, thanks in part to a plaque hanging inside the memorial in tribute. Here, facing this pair of crosses, is where I feel the famed story of our ancestors falling away, and I see something different: just a pair of brothers, young and funny and Irish.

I can't tell you what Patrick sees. He is a Marine with a Purple Heart. He doesn't say much, just quietly cleans the pinecones off their graves. And as we walk back through the cemetery, he pauses at crosses that are missing names, where the grass is thick and healthy and green. I know this is a different place for him than it is for me, but I'm grateful to walk through it with him.

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On the terrace of our hotel that night, we watch the sun sink into the sea with a group of Brits we met at dinner—they are on-the-spot likable, their tone as familiar as if we'd caravanned into this French village together. We tell our stories, the threads that pulled us all to these beaches. When I mention that Patrick, like our grandmother's brothers and cousins, fought overseas, I see the shift as clearly as if it were a glass of Calvados being passed around the group: a convivial admiration for the American soldier.

We talk into the evening, and are joined by a pair of Dutchmen, who scoot their chairs over from a neighboring table. It's a clear night out over the north Atlantic, maybe 65 degrees, and I wonder again what happened with that bleak forecast. Maybe the Riviera got hit with a cold spell.

Omaha Beach
Photo: Ellen McGauley
Hotel de la Marine, Arromanches-le-Bains
Photo: Ellen McGauley
Photo: Ellen McGauley

Get Here: Fly to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and rent a car for the four-hour drive to the Norman coast.

Stay Here: Begin at Hôtel des Isles in the tiny, step-back-in-time village of Barneville-Carteret. Located on the western edge of the Cotentin Peninsula, the convivial seaside hotel is a bit off the well-worn path of WWII visitors, but the rural, 30-mile drive from the inn to Utah Beach offers a glimpse at notable villages like Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which was the first to be liberated in the war. Rates start at $138; hoteldesisles.com. Closer to Omaha Beach, make your base the Hôtel de la Marine in Arromanches-les-Bains. Have dinner at the inn's restaurant along the seawall, and then head out to the terrace to watch sun go down over the Atlantic. Rates start at $114; hotel-de-la-marine.fr.