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STORMIN' NORMANDY : Today, the wind-swept beaches of northern France are peaceful, but on Junes 6, 1944, they exploded with the sounds of war. This summer, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, hordes of visitors will reinvade them.

March 13, 1994|BARRY STAVRO | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Stavro is the business editor for The Times' Valley edition

NORMANDY COAST, France — The early morning hours were cold and gray, with rain pelting down and the wind whipping at 30 m.p.h. After an hour, I was soaked and needed some shelter. I found it inside a 50-year-old Nazi concrete bunker. From two-foot-wide turret slits, where artillery guns once overlooked the beaches 100 feet below, I could see no more than a mile into the fog blanketing the English Channel.

The weather was miserable, and so it was perfect.

On D-day, June 6, 1944, the weather was much like this when 5,000 Allied ships, 2,000 aircraft and 160,000 soldiers arrived on this northern coast of France. Some soldiers came by glider or parachute. But most of them first touched France on five beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, and fought their way up the sands to begin the breakthrough inland that, within a year, would put the Allies in Berlin and end the Second World War in Europe.

My wife Michele, who is French, and her sister-in-law had already left my brother-in-law and me here in the rain, calling us maniacs--the word is similar in French--as they took shelter in the car. Without a word, my brother-in-law, Andre, and I kept moving. Battlefield touring is an acquired taste; it's not for everyone. And neither is Cognac. But the D-day beaches are worth savoring; what happened on this strip of sand changed the map of Europe, and the rest of our century.

I never wore a soldier's uniform--one of my cherished mementos, in fact, is my student deferment card from the Vietnam era--but war as history has always grabbed me. I've walked the Revolutionary War battle greens of Lexington and Bunker Hill, and through the woods at Valley Forge. I've hiked in the forest below Richmond, Va., where Grant's army outfought Lee's in our Civil War. I've seen eastern France where trench warfare raged for years in World War I. But no battlefield was as moving for me as the D-day beaches.

For those veterans who will visit on the 50th anniversary of D-day this summer, the invasion remains one of the seminal moments of their lives. Older Americans remember that before D-day Hitler's army had ravaged Europe for five years, and many feared Germany might still win the war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called D-day "a great crusade," but privately, the day before D-day, Eisenhower wrote a message in case things went wrong: "Our landings . . . have failed . . . The troops . . . did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone." In the end, D-day helped bring an end to Hitler.

Be advised that if you plan to visit, sharpen your elbows because it will probably be overcrowded all season. On June 6, President Clinton, with as many as 50,000 other visitors, should attend ceremonies at Omaha Beach. Retired Army Col. Bond Johnson of Long Beach has led several D-day tours, but not this year: "It will be a 5 o'clock freeway traffic jam." So unless you already have reservations, consider going to Normandy by April. Or wait until fall.

Other than anniversary time, it isn't hard to maneuver around the Normandy coast, even for an American who doesn't speak French. Beyond the battlefields, be ready for one of the most beautiful rural areas of France. The sea air keeps the small cattle farms and apple orchards a lush green, flowers are everywhere and the architecture resembles England's, with slate-gray tile or thatched roofs.

This being apple country, Calvados--apple brandy--and cider find their way onto the table. There is also cheese--Camembert and Pont-l'Eveque are regional specialties--and dessert: apple tarts, perhaps flambeed with Calvados.

As for the battlefields, be forewarned: Unlike Concord or Gettysburg, where you can see a field of history in one view, it's impossible at the D-day beaches. The landing beach sites--from west to east, Utah, Omaha (invaded by Americans), Gold (by the British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British)--stretch 60 miles along the rugged coastline. There are package tours, but a self-guided visit is easily done with a rental car. Get a Michelin map, do some reading--try John Keegan's "Six Armies in Normandy" and bring photocopies of maps in the book.

Before arriving last July, my biggest worry was how to find the exact spots where the invasions took place. But the French government makes it easy. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, are now the official names of these beaches, and are printed in English on road signs. Although the beaches are what D-day is best remembered for, the first Allied soldiers to touch French soil, a few minutes after midnight, were airborne units who came down a few miles inland on the western and eastern flanks of the invasion beaches.

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