COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – Joy and sadness in acute doses poured out on the beaches of Normandy on Monday.
As several dozen D-Day veterans – now all in their 90s – have set foot on the sand that has cost so many colleagues, they are grateful for the gratitude and friendship of the French towards those who have landed here on June 6, 1944. Sadness comes from thinking of their fallen comrades and another battle currently being fought in Europe: the war in Ukraine.
As a bright sun rose over the wide stretch of sand at Omaha Beach on Monday, American D-Day veteran Charles Shay expressed his thoughts for his comrades who died here 78 years ago.
“I have never forgotten them and I know their spirits are here,” he told The Associated Press.
The 98-year-old Penobscot Native American from Indian Island, Maine took part in a sage burning ceremony near the beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Shay, who now lives in Normandy, was a 19-year-old US Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
He said he was especially sad to see war again in Europe, so many years later.
“Ukraine is a very sad situation. I feel sorry for the people there and I don’t know why this war had to happen, but I think human beings like, I think they like to fight. I don’t know,” he said. “In 1944, I landed on these beaches and we thought we were bringing peace to the world. But that is not possible.
This year, Shay entrusted the remembrance task to another Native American, Julia Kelly, a Gulf War veteran of the Crow tribe, who performed the sage ritual. “Never forget, never forget,” she said. “Right now, at any time, war is not good.”
Shay’s message to younger generations would be to “always be vigilant”.
“Of course I have to say they should protect their freedom that they have now,” he said.
Over the past two years, D-Day ceremonies have been kept to a minimum under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. But this year, throngs of French and international visitors – including veterans in their 90s – were back in Normandy to pay their respects to the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, America, Canada and elsewhere who landed there to bring peace. freedom.
Several thousand people attended a ceremony at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer. They applauded over 20 World War II veterans who attended the commemoration.
Among them 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 AP.
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.”
He was asked the secret of his 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 military and civilian clothes of the time, also came to stage a re-enactment of the events.
In Colleville-sur-Mer on Monday, US Air Force planes flew over the American cemetery during the commemoration ceremony, in the presence of Army General Mark Milley, Joint Chief of Staff. The place houses the graves of 9,386 people who died in battle on D-Day and in the operations that followed.
Milley had strong words about Ukraine at the American cemetery ceremony, vowing that the United States and its allies would maintain their “strong” support for Ukraine.
“kyiv may be 2,000 kilometers from here, they too, at this moment, today, are living the same horrors that French citizens experienced during World War II at the hands of the Nazi invader,” said said Milley in a speech. “Let’s not make those here alone the last witnesses to a time when our allies come together to defeat tyranny.”
For Dale Thompson, 82, visiting the site over the weekend was a first.
Thompson, who traveled 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.