Clayton Baum’s first visit to Normandy, France, was under very different circumstances from his second. In 1944, he had arrived by landing craft at the site of a beachhead less than a week after D-Day, the greatest seaborne invasion in military history.
When Baum returned in 2019, it was by way of the luxurious Uniworld Super Ship Joie de Vivre, eating gourmet food in place of K-Rations. The veteran was there as part of a National World War II Museum charter that cruised the Seine River and connected with the beaches Normandy. He says his voyage “was like having a private waiter.” And instead of being met by German forces intent on pushing the Allies back into the English Channel, he was greeted everywhere by Normans still grateful for the effort that had liberated them decades ago. The museum is repeating the itinerary October 31 to November 8, 2021, with world-renowned historians and expert battlefield guides.
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Uniworld Ship S.S. Joire de Vivre
This time Baum had come as part of a Uniworld trip celebrating the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord that would lead to the defeat of Germany in World War II. At 96 and as one of the few remaining participants in the offensive that had landed more than 300,00 troops, he was an honored guest in a remembrance tour that also included West Point graduates and General George Patton’s grandson, George Patton “Pat” Waters.
Upon his return, Baum was struck by how ardently Normandy remembers the invasion. “Every town had some memorial,” says the former G.I., who came dressed in uniform. “The people were so grateful. They crowded around me.” And as this was Normandy, there was also much toasting with the region’s signature Calvados, a brandy made with native apples. Baum had remembered the spirit as the high-proof quaff that soldiers would sometimes substitute for fluid in their cigarette lighters.
Paratroopers had jumped into the tiny town in the dark of night prior to the main attack at daybreak.
What had been a devastated war zone upon Baum’s arrival as a 21-year-old T-4 (equivalent to a sergeant in today’s ranks), has now largely returned to its pastoral look with orchards and hedgerows. Nevertheless, he immediately recognized the sign for Sainte-Mère-Église, some six miles inland from the invasion at Utah Beach. It was one of the initial Allied objectives liberated, and was Baum’s first stop after he arrived in France. Paratroopers had jumped into the tiny town in the dark of night prior to the main attack at daybreak.
Nearby, at Pointe du Hoc, stands the Rangers Memorial. It honors the 200 elite troops who scaled its 100-foot cliffs to knock out German artillery installations that had overlooked Utah and Omaha beaches. Today, visitors can still tour the bunkers that once contained long-range weapons.
Crosses mark the graves of fallen soldiers at Normandy American Cemetery
Particularly poignant is Omaha Beach, where rough seas and determined defenders made for a fierce battle on D-Day. Viewing the wide stretches of once obstructed shoreline and the steep cliffs on which the enemy perched, it is easy to gauge the incredible valor of the Americans who fought that day.
At the height of the bluffs is the American Cemetery and Memorial, the site of 9,386 burials. Its rows upon rows of marble crosses and Stars of David bring into sharp perspective the terrible price paid that day in the fight for freedom. On his visit, Baum paused to lay a wreath in remembrance of his fallen brothers.
The memorial monument at Normandy American Cemetery
Mulberry Harbor Normandy
Visitors to Normandy can also expect to see Juno and Gold beaches, the respective objectives of Canadian and British troops that day. Today, the area is largely a beach resort, but at nearby Arromanches Bay visitors will find the D-Day Museum and the remnants of its prefabricated harbor. Ingenious engineers created the port facility that was towed into place there, and which rapidly turned into a lifeline to feed supplies for the invasion.
Clayton posing with students in Bayeux, Normandy. Image: The National WWII Museum
Clayton recalling his original Normandy experience. Image: The National WWII Museum
For Baum, who says he hadn’t thought about his original Normandy experience for decades, the trip provided many more recent memories in a photographic form. “I never had my picture taken so much in my life,” he says of the many people who approached him for selfies. “It finally got so much, that I would point to Mr. Waters and say, ‘Look over there. There’s the grandson of [General George] Patton.’”