The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial may very well be the most visited American military cemetery in the world after Arlington, and with good reason: It is an emotional experience that stays with visitors long after they've returned home from their travels, even if they've never given much thought to World War II battle history.
There are four distinct features to the memorial, located in Colleville-sur-Mer, about half an hour from Bayeux and three hours from Paris. First, there is the cemetery itself, the final resting place of more than 9,000 soldiers. The vast majority of them lost their lives fighting the D-Day battles of Normandy, but there are other World War II heroes buried here as well. The rigid lines of so many thousands of graves are an astonishing sight, and the sense of loss is overwhelming. You'll see small stones placed upon the headstones in the shape of the Star of David for Jewish soldiers; this is a common Jewish custom and they should not be removed.
The next feature is the memorial, which includes a reflecting pool, a chapel and inlaid maps detailing the events of D-Day. The American flag flies here, as France conceded the land to the Americans and it is considered U.S. soil. The memorial and cemetery give way to the next feature, which is the view from from the site's vantage point above the famous Omaha Beach. From news reports and cinematic depictions we've come to recognize the beach from the point of view of the soldiers coming in from the English Channel; to see it from above, though, is to see just how precarious their circumstances were and how incredible it was that victory belonged to the Allies that day.
The final feature of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is its brilliant visitor center, which puts everything into context. Far from jingoistic chest-thumping, the center instead stands in humble awe of the men who gave their lives on D-Day and pays every ounce of due respect to the enormity of the operation. Inside are items the soldiers carried with them, from ammunition to good luck charms, as well as first-hand accounts recorded by veterans. Learn about the French involvement in the region and the small details that could have made or broken the operation.