Looking Back: June 6, 2009

Five years ago today, I was visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC,   hoping to capture an image of the nearly full moon rising over the Memorial to coincide with the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion.

Readers who have visited the Memorial know that its central feature is a large oval pool with a ring of small water jets and anchored at each end by two towering fountains.  A plaza surrounds the pool and at the north and south ends of the plaza there are two pavilions, the northern one dedicated to the Pacific Theater and the southern dedicated to the Atlantic Theater. I planned to position myself near the Atlantic Pavilion and shoot northeast across the oval pool as the moon came into view.

 

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The image above shows the moon rising just next the flag about 20 minutes before sunset. It is a photomerge of 3 images with the camera in the vertical (portrait) orientation. (Technical Data: Nikon D700 with 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens set at 55 mm; exposure 1/5th sec @ f/4.8, ISO 200) While the angle was good, I felt that it was still too early and decided to try again shortly after sunset.  It was a warm summer evening and a gentle breeze occasionally rustled the flags.

I turned toward the Atlantic Pavilion which can provide a very nice scene in early twilight after the lighting is turned on.  For example, the image below (taken a  few years earlier) shows a section of the fountain basin. The inscription on the back wall is the message General Eisenhower communicated to  the invasion forces as they were embarking for Normandy.  The sloping capstone in the right foreground is engraved with the major World War II battles in Europe such as Hürtgen Forest shown in this image.

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But on that night, the 65th anniversary, the Memorial had become a kind of pilgrim’s quest for individuals with deep personal connections to that terrible day.  Some had come and departed already, leaving small mementos behind.  I approached the capstone to take a closer look and spotted a pair of dog tags, one of which had a tiny picture of the soldier to whom they had belonged. Small bouquets were positioned carefully along the capstone and I imagined that their location was chosen with care, resting on the place where the name of a particular battle was engraved.

I became aware of a woman standing next to me, just in front of the Normandy engraving.  She carried two small bouquets and seemed hesitant, uncertain of her next move.  I stepped away, allowing her to be alone at the capstone.  From a distance I watched as she placed the bouquets with attached ribbons on either side of the Normandy engraving, carefully spreading out the ribbons as if arranging a display.  She stepped back a few feet and stood silently for a moment contemplating the bouquets.  Then she turned and walked away.

I waited a few minutes, mesmerized by what I had just witnessed. All thoughts of the moonrise photograph had evaporated.  I walked back to the capstone and looked at what she had left.  There were handwritten inscription on the ribbons.  I bent down to read the words and realized  I was being given a glimpse into the past and that I had to take a completely different photograph than I had originally intended.

 

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The inscription on the ribbons in the foreground said:

“In memory & honor of the 316th Troop Carrier Group,

left Cottesmore, England on the evening  of 6-5-44 for the Normandy invasion.”

 

There was a name on the second set of ribbons, a birth date and a date of death, June 6, 2008.

Postscript: Wanting to know more, I did some research. On that night, the 316th Troop Carrier Group carried about 1,300 paratroopers and combat equipment of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division to its designated drop zone close to St. Mere-Eglise and returned without losing a single plane.  The Group’s precision provided the 505th with the most accurate drop of the night.

Tonight, five years later, I’ll be thinking of her, wondering who she was and wishing I knew more about the message on those ribbons.

12 thoughts on “Looking Back: June 6, 2009

  1. Robin, I just love that you combine your amazing photography with detailed stories. This one was poignant and wonderful.

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    • Thanks, Michele. As you would guess, it is a big day over here as well. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles were in Paris yesterday to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. The Republican Guard, more than 200 of them, mounted on horseback and dressed in their ceremonial uniforms paraded past our apartment on the way to that ceremony. Most everything else is at Normandy today.

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  2. A beautiful story, and you honour it with a beautiful image. 156,000 Allied troops that landed on an 80-km stretch of France’s northern coast, today we remember those who stepped forward to serve.

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    • Thanks very much, and today is a day of remembrance in many places. Over here in France, it’s quite a big deal. They are running live coverage of the ceremonies in Normandy, and yesterday the newspaper Figaro had a full page story about Bedford, Virginia which lost more soldiers (19) on a per capita basis than any other city in the US. Today’s paper was full of feature articles on the Disembarquement, as they call it, and a pull-out map of the Normandy coast, showing the movement of forces on the first few days. There was even a profile on a still-living survivor who was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, but not the same regiment as the one carried by the 316th Troop Carrier Group.

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  3. Robin, what a perfect story to honor this very special day. Such a beautiful tribute coupled with your amazing images. I can only imagine the emotions across Normandy today, as this anniversary will likely be the last of the decennial celebrations to involve living veterans of the historic day.

    I heard today from a blogger whose father was in the 82nd Airborne and survived the landing. His “thank you” for the post took my breath away. I’m certain the woman whose story you captured would be honored to read what you have written and to know the impact her story had on you, and on all who have read your post.

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    • Thanks, Stacy. It likely will be the last major celebration for those who were there. It was so nice to hear the response you received from the son of one of the participants. Thanks for sharing it.

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