COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — When D-Day veterans tread the beaches of Normandy and other World War II sites, they express a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy to see the gratitude and friendship of the French towards those who landed on June 6, 1944. Sadness in thinking of their fallen comrades and of another battle which is now being waged in Europe: the war in Ukraine.
Over the past two years, D-Day ceremonies have been kept to a minimum under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
This year, throngs of French and international visitors – including veterans over 90 – were back in Normandy for the 78th anniversary of D-Day to pay their respects to the nearly 160,000 British, American, Canadian and elsewhere who landed there to bring freedom. .
Several thousand people were expected Monday at a ceremony at the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer. Among the dozens of American veterans expected was Ray Wallace, 97, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
On D-Day, his plane is hit and catches fire, forcing him to jump ahead of schedule. He landed 32 kilometers from the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first French village liberated from Nazi occupation.
“We were all a little scared at that time. And then every time the guy let us down, we were far from where the rest of the group was. It was scary,” Wallace told The Associated Press.
Less than a month later, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was finally released after 10 months and returned to the United States
Still, Wallace thinks he was “lucky”.
“I remember the good friends I lost there. So it’s kind of emotional,” he said, with sadness in his voice. “I guess you can say I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I haven’t done that much.”
Asked about the secret of its longevity, “Calvados! he joked, referring to the local Normandy liquor.
On D-Day, Allied troops landed on the beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats. On that day alone, 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives, including 2,501 Americans. Over 5,000 were injured.
On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.
Wallace, who uses a wheelchair, was one of about twenty World War II veterans who opened the parade of military vehicles in Sainte-Mère-Eglise on Saturday to the applause of thousands of people, in a joyful atmosphere. He made no secret of his delight, happily waving to the crowd as parents explained the exploits of World War II heroes to their children.
Many history buffs, dressed in period military and civilian clothing, also came to stage a re-enactment of the events.
In Colleville-sur-Mer on Monday, US Air Force planes are to fly over the American cemetery during the commemoration ceremony, in the presence of Army General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The place houses the graves of 9,386 who died in action on D-Day and in the operations that followed.
For Dale Thompson, 82, visiting the site over the weekend was a first.
Thompson, who came from Florida with his wife, served in the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the early 1960s. He was in the United States and saw no combat.
Walking among the thousands of marble headstones, Thompson wondered how he would have reacted if he had landed on D-Day.
“I try to put myself in their shoes,” he said. “Could I be as heroic as these people?
AP journalists Oleg Cetinic and Jeremias Gonzalez contributed to the story.