The sand is used to fill in the letters on tombstones of Americans who lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 17, 2023. It has since been updated.
Omaha Beach, one of the landing sites of the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, is a place of deep historical significance. It was here on June 6, 1944, that American soldiers faced tremendous odds to secure a beachhead and begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. The sacrifice of the soldiers who fought and died on the beaches that day is honored by a unique tradition that has been carried on for many years by French soldiers and civilians alike.
While attending an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Congresswoman Jackie Speier documented a powerful and emotional moment at the Normandy American Cemetery. Speier was visiting the grave of a friend's father during her 2019 visit when she witnessed a soldier rubbing sand onto a white headstone in order to make the letters more visible.
📸Visitors at Normandy American Cemetery discover how to place sand on a headstone so that the name of the service member stands out. Additionally, both an American flag and a host-nation flag are placed before the headstone in honor of the service member.https://t.co/eNb2r2REQz pic.twitter.com/slGKtT8XkU— ABMC (@usabmc) October 18, 2022
In a tweet sharing a video of the soldier's actions, Speier explained the purpose behind the sand rubbing. She wrote, "The letters on the white crosses almost disappear in the brightness of the stone, so a soldier fills the indentations with sand from Omaha Beach to bring the name forward."
The video, which is only 45 seconds long, shows the soldier carefully rubbing sand onto the headstone of Maj. William A. Richards. After a few moments, he wipes away the excess sand with a sponge, revealing the clear inscription on the stone.
Visited the grave of my friend’s father and witnessed a remarkable ceremony. The letters on the white crosses almost disappear in the brightness of the stone, so a soldier fills the indentations with sand from Omaha Beach to bring the name forward. It sent shivers down my spine. pic.twitter.com/e2G8KvvALt— Jackie Speier (@RepSpeier) June 6, 2019
For Speier, this small act of remembrance was incredibly moving. In her tweet, she wrote that it "sent shivers down my spine." According to WTHR, the soldier in the video was honoring the memory of Maj. William A. Richards, who served with the 112th Engineer Combat Battalion and entered the service in Michigan. Richards died on D-Day and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart and World War II Victory Medal.
The Normandy American Cemetery, where Speier captured the video, is the final resting place for more than 9,000 American soldiers who died in the Normandy landings and subsequent operations during World War II. The cemetery is a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom and democracy during the war.
Every year, French soldiers and civilians gather at Omaha Beach to collect sand from the shore. They then use this sand to fill in the letters on the tombstones of fallen American soldiers buried at the cemetery.
The tradition of filling in the letters on tombstones with sand reportedly began in the 1950s. At that time, the cemetery was maintained by French gardeners, who noticed that the letters on the tombstones were becoming worn and difficult to read. They came up with the idea of using sand from the beach to fill in the letters, making them more legible and creating a poignant connection between the soldiers buried in the cemetery and the place where they had fought and died.
The tradition was continued by French soldiers stationed in the area, and over time it became a beloved ritual among the local population. Today, the sand-filling ceremony is held annually on the eve of D-Day, and it is attended by a mix of French and American military personnel, dignitaries and members of the public.
The tradition of collecting sand from Omaha Beach is a beautiful way to pay tribute to the fallen American soldiers. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten, symbolizing the enduring friendship between France and the United States. Filling in the letters on the tombstones is a small but powerful way to show gratitude for their sacrifice and ensure that their memory lives on for generations to come.