Photos of fresh-faced privates, wizened U.S. generals and the largest amphibious military operation in history. Dented army canteens that once dotted killing fields in France. The booming sounds of gunships echoing over the waves in Normandy — this time, on video.
The Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, best known for its sober rows of white grave markers honoring fallen U.S. troops in World War II, has at last gotten a visitor's center.
Nearly a million visitors trek every year to the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, one of the two landing points where U.S. troops stormed ashore on D-Day — June 6, 1944 — and helped the Allies rid the menace of Nazi Germany over Europe.
Six years in the making, the new center was inaugurated recently by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for the 63rd anniversary of the start of "Operation Overlord" that helped end the war.
"We build memorials like this to remind us of the past. So that successive generations will know the enormous cost of freedom," Gates said at the ceremony.
Designers faced a delicate task balancing the desire to educate while not overshadowing sacrifices of nearly 10,000 Americans buried nearby.
The $30 million visitor center is purposely understated, with most of the 10,000-square-feet of display space underground, though it is now the entryway for tourists onto the cemetery's manicured lawn.
"The cemetery has always had this extremely powerful emotional component," said Macarena Aristegui of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which runs the cemetery and memorial. "What was lacking was a story to go with the names written on the headstones."
The site is one of the most visited U.S. military cemeteries in the world. It draws veterans' relatives, many of them Americans who feel proud of their country's contribution to the liberation of France and Europe, as well as veterans themselves whose numbers are dwindling — but who still have many thoughts for their fallen comrades-in-arms.
The center displays scratched and dented weapons, photos of soldiers who carried them, and excerpts from letters they sent home. It also shows documentary films and news reports about the war's progress.
U.S. Congressmen David Obey, D-Wis., and John Murtha, D-Pa., proposed building the center in 2001, and it was designed by French-American architect Nicolas Kelemen. The first stone was laid two years ago.
Some 200 American World War II veterans were on hand for the center's June 6, 2007, inauguration, along with 15 who had fought on the beaches, some of whom hadn't been back since the war, Aristegui said.
Admission to the visitor center is free. A small private room is available for veterans and their families to give them privacy before or after a visit to the cemetery.