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Veterans, visitors mark Normandy D-Day anniversary

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World War II veterans and other visitors gather Monday in Normandy for the 78th D-Day anniversary to pay tribute to the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the US, Canada and elsewhere who landed there. Several thousand people are expected Monday at a ceremony at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer.

This year’s D-Day anniversary comes after two successive years of the Covid-19 pandemic restricted or deterred visitors. The celebrations paying tribute to those who brought peace and freedom to the continent have a special resonance this year as war rages once again in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. 

In the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer on Monday, US Air Force aircraft are to fly over the American Cemetery during the commemoration ceremony, in the presence of Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is the final resting place of 9,386 personnel who died fighting on D-Day and in the operations that followed. 

On the eve of the D-Day anniversary, veterans, their families and French and international visitors braved the rainy weather on Sunday to take part in series of events marking the 78th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Peter Smoothy, 97, served in the British Royal Navy and landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

“The first thing I remember are the poor lads who didn’t come back … It’s a long time ago now, nearly 80 years … And here we are still living,” he told The Associated Press. “We’re thinking about all these poor lads who didn’t get off the beach that day, their last day, but they’re always in our minds.”

Welcomed to the sound of bagpipes at the Pegasus Memorial in the French town of Ranville, British veterans attended a ceremony commemorating a key operation in the first minutes of the Allied invasion of Normandy, when troops had to take control a strategically crucial bridge.

‘We all got a little scared then’

Ray Wallace, 97, a former paratrooper with the US 82nd Airborne Division will be among the dozens of World War II veterans attending the ceremony at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer.

On D-Day, his plane was hit and caught fire, forcing him to jump earlier than expected. He landed 20 miles (32 kilometers) away from the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French village to be liberated from Nazi occupation.

“We all got a little scared then. And then whenever the guy dropped us out, we were away from where the rest of the group was. That was scary,” Wallace told The Associated Press.

Less than a month later, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was ultimately liberated after 10 months and returned to the US.

Still, Wallace thinks he was “lucky”. 

“I remember the good friends that I lost there. So it’s a little emotional,” he said, with sadness in his voice. “I guess you can say I’m proud of what I did but I didn’t do that much.”

Asked about the secret to his longevity, “Calvados!” he joked, in reference to Normandy’s local alcohol.

‘I try to put myself in their place’

On D-Day, Allied troops landed on the beaches code-named Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats. On that single day, 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives, 2,501 of them Americans. More than 5,000 were wounded. 

On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.

Wallace, who is using a wheelchair, was among about 20 WWII veterans who opened Saturday’s parade of military vehicles in Sainte-Mere-Eglise to great applause from thousands of people, in a joyful atmosphere. He did not hide his pleasure, happily waving to the crowd as parents explained the achievements of WWII heroes to their children. 

Many history buffs wearing military and civilian clothes from the period also came to stage a reenactment of the events.

For 82-year-old Dale Thompson, visiting the site over the weekend was a first. 

Thompson, who travelled from Florida with his wife, served in the 101st Airborne Division of the US military in the early 1960s. He was stateside and saw no combat. 

Walking amid the thousands of marble headstones, Thompson wondered how he would have reacted if he landed at D-Day. 

“I try to put myself in their place,” he said. “Could I be as heroic as these people?”

(FRANCE 24 with AP)


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