By Sylvie Corbet and Jeff Schaeffer | Associated Press
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Joy and sorrow in acute doses poured out on the beaches of Normandy on Monday.
As several dozen D-Day veterans—all now in their 90s—set foot on the sand claimed by so many colleagues, they are grateful for the French’s gratitude and kindness to those who landed here on June 6, 1944. The sadness comes when they think of their fallen comrades and of another battle now being fought in Europe: the war in Ukraine.
As a radiant sun rose over the broad stretch of sand at Omaha Beach Monday, American D-Day veteran Charles Shay spoke to his comrades who died here 78 years ago.
“I’ve never forgotten them and I know their spirit is here,” he told The Associated Press.
The 98-year-old Penobscot Native American from Indian Island, Maine, participated in a sage-burning ceremony near the beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Now living in Normandy, Shay was a 19-year-old United States Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
He said he was especially sad to see war in Europe again 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 come, but I think the people like to do that, I think they like to fight. I don’t know,” he said. “In 1944 I landed on these beaches and we thought we would bring peace to the world. But we can’t.”
This year, Shay handed over the memorial duty 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. “In this day and age, 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 that they have to protect the freedom they have now,” he said.
For the past two years, D-Day ceremonies have been kept to a minimum amid COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. But this year, crowds of French and international visitors — including veterans in their 90s — were back in Normandy to pay tribute to the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the US, Canada and elsewhere who landed there to bring freedom.
Several thousand people attended a ceremony at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer. They applauded more than 20 WWII veterans who attended the memorial.
Among them was Ray Wallace, 97, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
On D-Day, his plane was hit and caught fire, forcing him to jump earlier than expected. He landed 20 miles away from the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French village to be liberated from Nazi occupation.
“Then we all got a little scared. And every time the guy dropped us off, we were away from where the rest of the group was. That was scary,” Wallace told the AP.
Less than a month later he was captured by the Germans. He was finally released after 10 months and returned to the US. Still, Wallace thinks he got lucky.
“I remember the good friends I lost there. So it’s a little emotional,” he said with sadness in his voice. “You can say I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I haven’t done that much.”
He was asked about the secret of his long life. “Calvados!” he joked, referring to Normandy’s local alcohol.
On D-Day, Allied troops landed on beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats. In that one day, 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives, 2,501 of them Americans. More than 5,000 were injured.
Several thousand were killed or wounded on the German side.
Wallace, who uses a wheelchair, was one of about 20 WWII veterans who opened the parade of military vehicles in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on Saturday to great applause from thousands of people, in a joyful atmosphere. He did not hide his pleasure and cheerfully waved to the crowd as parents explained the achievements of World War II heroes to their children.
Many history buffs, dressed in military and civilian clothing of the period, also came to stage a reenactment of the events.
In Colleville-sur-Mer, United States Air Force planes flew over the American cemetery on Monday during the memorial ceremony, attended by Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The site is home to the graves of 9,386 people who died during the D-Day fighting and the operations that followed.
Milley had strong words about Ukraine at the American cemetery ceremony, vowing that the US and its allies would continue their “significant” support for Ukraine.
“Kiev may be 2000 kilometers away, but they too are experiencing the same horrors today as the French citizens who experienced World War II at the hands of the Nazi invader,” Milley said in a speech. “Let’s not be the only ones here who are the last witnesses to a time when our Allies are coming together to defeat tyranny.”
For 82-year-old Dale Thompson, visiting the site over the weekend was a first.
Traveling from Florida with his wife, Thompson served in the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the early 1960s. He was stateside and saw no fight.
As he walked among the thousands of marble tombstones, Thompson wondered how he would have reacted had he landed on D-Day.
“I try to put myself in their place,” he said. “Could I be as heroic as these people?”
AP journalists Oleg Cetinic and Jeremias Gonzalez contributed to the story.