COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — When D-Day veterans set foot on the Normandy beaches and other World War II sites, they express a mix of joy and sadness. Joy to witness the French’s gratitude and kindness toward the landed troops on June 6, 1944. They are saddened to think about their fallen comrades, and the other battle being waged now in Europe: The war in Ukraine.
D-Day ceremonies in the United States were halted for two years because of COVID-19 lockdown limitations.
This year, crowds of French and international visitors — including veterans in their 90s — were back in Normandy for the 78th D-Day anniversary to pay tribute to the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere who landed there to bring freedom.
A ceremony was held Monday at the American Cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer. Ray Wallace, 97 (former paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne Division), was one among many U.S. veterans who were expected to be there.
US WWII veteran Ray Wallace, of the 507th PIR 82rd Airborne, looks on as World War II history enthusiasts parade in WWII vehicles to commemorate the 78th anniversary of D-Day that led to the liberation of France and Europe from the German occupation, in Sainte-Mere-L’Eglise, Normandy, Sunday, June, 5, 2022.
AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez
D-Day saw his plane hit by fire on the runway, forcing him into a jump that was much earlier than he expected. He arrived 20 miles (32.2 km) away from Sainte-Mere-Eglise which was the first French village freed from Nazi occupation.
“We all got a little scared then. We were far from the rest when the man dropped us out. That was scary,” Wallace told The Associated Press.
A month later, the Germans took him prisoner. After 10 months, he was released. He returned to the U.S.
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.”
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Asked about the secret to his longevity, “Calvados!” he joked, in reference to Normandy’s local alcohol.
D-Day saw Allied troops land on beaches code-named Omaha and Utah. They were accompanied along by 7,000 boats. There were 4,414 Allied soldiers who died that day. 2,501 of these deaths were American. There were more than 5,000 wounded.
Numerous thousand died or were injured on the German side.
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. As his parents told their children about the accomplishments of WWII heroes, Wallace smiled and waved to them.
British veteran Bill Gladden arrived at the Pegasus Bridge ceremony in Ranville (Normandy) on Sunday June 5, 2022.
AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez
History buffs dressed in civilian and military clothes of that time also participated in a reenactment.
On Monday in Colleville, sur-Mer, U.S. Air Force planes will fly above the American Cemetery as part of the commemoration ceremony. They are accompanied by Army General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). This place contains the remains of 9 386 soldiers who were killed in action on D-Day, and the subsequent operations.
Dale Thompson (82 years old) visited the site for the first time over the weekend.
Thompson, who traveled from Florida to join his wife in serving in the 101st Airborne Division in the U.S. Army in the 1960s. Thompson was not in combat while he was at home.
Thompson was walking among the many thousands of marble headsstones and wondered what he’d have done if he had landed at D-Day.
“I try to put myself in their place,” he said. “Could I be as heroic as these people?”
Oleg Cetinic, AP Journalist and Jeremias González contributed to this story.
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