Thousands of graves stretching to the horizon remind Penny Lewis of the sacrifice made by so many.
I am lucky enough to be cruising along the Seine. This particular cruise, hosted by Avalon Waterways on its Tapestry II suite ship, is called "Paris to Normandy's Landing Beaches".
Despite my lack of interest in military history, I couldn't go all the way to this part of France and not see the famous beaches, despite thinking it wouldn't be a highlight of the eight-day trip.
After all, the events of Operation Overlord and the D-Day Landings aren't an integral part of New Zealand's story.
Sure, I'd heard of D-Day and seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, but I didn't really know what to expect from this part of the itinerary, apart from a day on the coach with a group of Americans to whom this chapter in history might mean something.
We are warned it's going to be a long day. Tapestry II is berthed at the small village of Caudebec-en-Caux - the furthest point river ships can travel along the Seine. After an early breakfast from the ship's buffet, we board our coach and are on the road by 8am.
Our guide, Irene, narrates a potted history lesson over the coach's PA system as we drive, allowing breaks for us to nap. On June 6, 1944, Allied forces took on the Germans when they landed on five beaches along an 80km stretch of Normandy coastline. The Americans targeted the beaches now known as Omaha and Utah.
Our coach's first stop is the town of Arromanches and its military museum. I find the museum not that interesting at first, until we watch a short movie explaining the sheer genius of how the Allies created the artificial "Mulberry" harbour to land their armies' munitions and supplies from Britain.
Over lunch at a local restaurant, I chat to fellow cruise passengers Bruce and Valerie Renstrom from Denver, Colorado.
They are a lovely couple and I'm keen to talk to them further about what this trip means to them. We finish our tuna salad and apple tarts and head back to the coach.
We drive to the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, where the earth is still pitted and scarred from bombing. This wartime German observation post and gun emplacement is now a monument to the American Second Ranger Battalion. Gazing out to sea on a glorious summer day it's hard to believe such bloodshed took place here. It becomes all too real as we head back to the coach and I see the plaques dedicated to the fallen. My heart skips a beat when I read the story of a 23-year-old steel worker from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Sergeant Walter Geldon of Company C, 2nd Ranger Battalion, sang songs with his fellow Rangers to celebrate his third wedding anniversary as they landed at Omaha at dawn on June 6. He was cut down by enemy fire within a few minutes of coming ashore. When Geldon's widow Anna died in 2002, aged 78, she was buried by his side.
My eyes well up with tears and it's then I realise this excursion isn't about dry military facts that have little to do with New Zealand.
The Landing Beaches tell very human stories. These young men sacrificed everything to beat Hitler.
I reflect on this as we drive to Omaha Beach. Looking out to the waves, there's a breeze blowing and I see no trace of the events that earned this place the name "Beach of Blood", save for Allied nations' flags, the "Big Red" American memorial and the contemporary sculpture erected on the sand to mark D-Day's 60th anniversary.
As we arrive at the American Military Cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, we learn facts about this immaculately manicured setting, which I recognise from Saving Private Ryan. The Niland brothers - Robert and Preston - are buried here.
It was their story that inspired the Steven Spielberg movie. Their mother tragically learned of their deaths from two telegrams within half an hour. When I see the graves - 9387 of them - stretching off into the distance, I get a sense of the scale of loss here. The graves are in no particular order - young men were buried in rows as they died - and these are only the Americans whose bodies weren't taken back to the US.
This place is haunting and beautiful. Carefully pruned evergreen trees stand sentry, lopped-off tops symbolising lives cut short.
A dedication wall is inscribed with 1557 names of the missing. Dotted here and there are small metal buttons next to some of the names, meaning their remains have been recovered and identified - the last one in 2010.
In the heat of mid-afternoon, there's a ceremony for my tour group to remember the dead. We gather at the monument, where we three New Zealanders are careful to stand at the back, out of the way. After a few words and a minute's silence, the Star Spangled Banner rings out from the PA system.
Suddenly, the Americans all turn to face us Kiwis, well, the stars-and-stripes flag behind us. They place their right hands on their hearts and look up to their flag as it flutters in the breeze. They sing their anthem proudly and many of them well up with emotion.
Chastising myself for getting in the way, I am also in awe of the Americans' national pride.
We leave the cemetery and begin the two-hour drive back to Caudebec and the Tapestry II.
It's been a long day, but worth it.
I had assumed learning about D-Day wouldn't affect me at all, but I was wrong. Its story is one we can all share.
Emotional journey to father's battlefield
Bruce Renstrom's father William served in General Patton's Third Army as a combat engineer. William, known as Billy, was stationed in England and arrived in Arromanches two weeks after D-Day. Billy met Patton when he and his group of men were supposed to be repairing a road, but didn't have any material for the repairs. "Naturally, all the soldiers were standing around smoking, playing cards and just goofing off," Bruce says. Someone noticed a Jeep coming and it soon became obvious it was Patton's. "My dad said that everyone snapped to attention, some with rifles and some with shovels and picks." Patton told Billy in no uncertain terms that all the men better be busy with road repairs when he returned. "I guess Patton never returned that day and the road did get repaired."
In November 1944, 20-year-old Billy was clearing landmines from a field in Nice. One landmine only partially detonated, so Billy dragged it along the ground to make it explode. It snagged on a bush, and when Billy turned to see what had happened, the ensuing explosion blinded him. He lost one eye and could only see limited light and shade in his remaining eye.
Billy returned to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio to marry his sweetheart, Ruby. He became a Baptist preacher and the couple moved to Denver, Colorado and had four children. Bruce, the second-oldest, was born in 1951. Billy knew his children by touching their faces, saying he would want to know who his children were in a line-up.
"He was a very happy person, one of the happiest people I've ever known," Bruce remembers.
In 1975, Billy was offered surgery to try to restore the sight in his "good" eye. It was a big decision: he could lose what little ability he had to distinguish light from dark. The operation was a success. When Billy saw his teenage kids for the first time, he displayed his trademark sense of fun by saying "you're all uglier than I thought you'd be!"
Bruce, a retired pilot, says of visiting the Landing Beaches: "It was very emotional for me to see the beaches where so many lost their lives. It made me pause and think about my dad coming ashore on Omaha Beach and his personal effort to help in the war." Billy Renstrom died aged 87 in 2012.
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Paris.
Details: Avalon Waterways' Suite Ship Avalon Tapestry II offers an eight-day river cruise on the Seine, Paris to Normandy's Landing Beaches. Avalon Waterways' fares include all on-board meals, wine and beer at dinner, expert guides and a daily selection of activities and excursions. See travel agents for bookings.
Penny Lewis travelled to Normandy courtesy of Avalon Waterways.