NORMANDY, March 12, 2008 — The Normandy American Cemetery rests on 172.5 acres of land in northern France on a cliff overlooking the English Channel and Omaha Beach. It was established on June 8, 1944, and was the first American cemetery on European soil during World War II. The French ceded the land to the Americans free of charge and without tax. The American government now manages the cemetery. The grounds are immaculately maintained by a team of Americans whose job is to tend to the flowers, trees and grass.
There are 9,387 U.S. servicemen and women buried in the cemetery – most from the D-Day landings – and of these graves, 307 are unknown. Four graves belong to women and three are Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Among those interred here are a father and son buried next to each other and 33 pairs of brothers.
The cemetery is in the shape of a rectangle and its paths are laid out like a Latin cross. On the eastern end of the cemetery is a semi-circular wall that serves as a memorial to the missing. Inscribed on the wall are 1,557 names. Looking from the memorial to the west is a reflecting pool with two poles flying American flags.
It is amazing to look beyond the reflecting pool and see the thousands of white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David lined up precisely one in front of another for row upon row, equally spaced apart from each other. Just beyond the reflecting pool, midway through the cemetery, is a circular chapel and at the far end are statues representing the United States and France.
The grave section is divided into 10 plots, each assigned a letter from A-J. It was not difficult to find a solider from Indiana. By walking just a few rows through section G, I was able to find the graves of five American men from Indiana – all killed in June and July 1944.
Meandering through the cemetery, you never know whose grave you are passing by as they are only marked by the serviceman’s name, date of death, infantry number and state of enlistment. In section G, row 14, grave 12, lies the body of Thomas D. Howie, a major in the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, who was killed July 17, 1944. His body is marked by the same marble cross as others buried nearby. No designation indicates that Howie had received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre.
Howie was only 36 when he was killed, but from stories on the U.S. Military’s Web site, he appeared to be a brave man who took great risks to liberate the French. In fact, some say that the character, Captain John Miller, in the movie Saving Private Ryan was based on Howie.
Born in South Carolina, Howie enlisted in the army in Virginia. He graduated from The Citadel where he was president of his class and a star halfback on the football team. He was among those who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
In July, he was assigned to command the 3d Battalion. He led them for 41 days through German lines to help the 2d Battalion that had been decimated with injuries and fatalities. While trying to capture the French town of Saint-Lô, Howie was killed by shrapnel from a mortar attack. He has since been known as “The Major of St. Lô.” He left behind a wife, Elizabeth, and a daughter, Sally Elizabeth.
The next day, as the 3d Battalion entered St. Lô, they placed Howie’s body on the hood of a jeep and drove into the city so he’d be the first American to enter the town. Soldiers placed his body, draped by an American flag, atop the rubble of the town’s cathedral. According to the military, it was “a gesture of comradeship and respect to an officer who symbolized the Americans’ effort, and their losses, in the bitter struggle for St-Lô.”