WorldD-Day anniversary in France reflects war past and present...

D-Day anniversary in France reflects war past and present : NPR

Enthusiasts wearing replica WWII military attire ride atop a WWII-era military truck in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, northwestern France, on June 4, 2024, as part of the

Enthusiasts wearing replica World War II military attire ride atop a WWII-era military truck in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, northwestern France, on Tuesday, as part of the D-Day commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the World War II Allied landings in Normandy. The D-Day ceremonies on June 6 this year mark the 80th anniversary.

Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

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Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

NORMANDY, France — The Normandy coast looks like a Hollywood movie set this time of year. Or maybe it’s a time warp. Did a 1940s truck full of American GIs just barrel past? Yes, it did! Welcome to Normandy on a D-Day anniversary, when thousands of people from across Europe and beyond descend on a string of tiny seaside towns and beaches to commemorate the 1944 Allied landing and, for some, to live out their passion for World War II history.

Frenchman Jacquy Patrice is here with his wife Dorothé and some friends. They are dressed as U.S. soldiers, a Women’s Army Corps member and a nurse. “We come every year dressed up,” he says. “It’s very poignant for us to dress like the American soldiers who liberated us.”

The group traveled from the Picardy region of France, some 300 miles away. They towed their 1940s jeep on a trailer. “It’s marvelous. We follow the same path of the GIs and it’s really moving,” Jacquy Patrice says. The small roads are clogged with thousands of such World War II-era vehicles ferrying enthusiastic passengers, driving down narrow lanes and the pathways of history.

Jacqui Patrice with his with Dorothé and some friends. They are dressed as U.S. soldiers, a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and a nurse.

Jacquy Patrice with his with Dorothé and some friends, dressed as World War II-era U.S. soldiers, a Women’s Army Corps member and a nurse.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

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Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

President Biden and the leaders of France, Germany, Canada and the king of England will join these reenactors for the official ceremonies Thursday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings that began June 6, 1944, to liberate the continent from the Nazis.

For many of the people who live in the towns and villages surrounding the landing beaches, the anniversary is at the same time grandiose and personal.

Part of daily life

“It’s a moment of memory, of sharing and a moment to pay homage to all these people who saved us,” says Odile Laporte, part of a local choir performing outside on a plaza overlooking Gold Beach.

“Living here and being surrounded by the beaches and the ambience, and the museums all year long makes this moment especially important as we think about what happened here 80 years ago.”

More than 150,000 Allied troops landed at Normandy, including 73,000 from the United States landing at Omaha and Utah beaches, and thousands of other British and Canadian forces. Over 4,000 Allied troops were killed and thousands more were listed as missing or wounded.

Ben Brands, a historian with the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, which keeps up the 26 U.S. overseas military cemeteries, says of all the invasion beaches, Omaha was the deadliest.

“Almost 800 Americans died on June 6 on Omaha Beach, just on the other side of this cemetery,” he says, explaining it was partly because of the bluffs and the soldiers met with heavier resistance than expected.

“But eventually small units led by junior soldiers taking the initiative were able to get off that beach and open up the Draws [cuts between the cliffs] and get them off the beach,” Brands says. “That’s how D-Day was won. By those incredibly heroic actions by small groups of men under extremely trying circumstances.”

Commemorations evolved with the times

D-Day anniversaries were not always such spectacular international events. The commemorations took a turn in 1984 when for the first time then French President François Mitterrand invited six heads of state, including President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II, to an international ceremony at Normandy’s Utah Beach, attended by thousands of veterans.

The commemorations reflect the times. In 2004, for the first time, the Germans were invited to take part in the ceremony. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder attended and famously said, “Europe has learned its lesson, and we Germans will not shirk from it.” French President Jacques Chirac responded: “The French receive you more than ever as a friend. They receive you as a brother.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was also present that year, and again in 2014. Even though the Soviet Union contributed mightily to the defeat of the Nazis, this year Putin is persona non grata, as the shadow of war again hangs over the continent, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s not lost on many who came to celebrate.

Ukraine looms large

Twenty-nine-year-old Marco Righini is standing on the bluff at the American cemetery looking down at Omaha Beach. He has traveled with his World War II reenactment group from Italy. He is dressed in the wool uniform and jaunty checkered cap of a Scottish regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. “This was the army field photographic unit that took pictures and movies for the British army,” he says.

Righini says there’s a strange feeling to the commemoration this year. “I see lots of similarities today with right before the beginning of the Second World War, when Hitler took part of Czechoslovakia,” he says.

Righini believes Europe should be doing a lot more to help Ukraine. “Even with all the problems that will come with that,” he says. “But we cannot let Russia do whatever it wants and get away with this.”

Marco Righini traveled with is World War II reenactment group from Italy.

Marco Righini traveled with is World War II reenactment group from Italy.

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Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

This year, Ukrainian flags fly along with the Allied nations’ colors. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will attend D-Day commemorations for the first time, and will meet President Biden on the sidelines of the ceremonies.

Frenchman Alexis Guilbert, who’s dressed as a GI, also says Europe should do “much, much more” for Ukraine. “Russia was once our ally but no longer has its place here,” he says. Guilbert also sees many parallels with World War II.

“Part of the reason World War II happened is Europe’s inaction,” he says. “In 1936 and 1938, the German army wasn’t ready and the other European armies were hugely superior in number and materiel. And today the Russian army doesn’t have what it takes to fight Western armies so we must act now.”

Still, some in Normandy expressed fear of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the threat of a larger war.

Charles Djou, the secretary of the American Battlefields Monument Commission, says what’s happening today is a timely reminder of the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance and of U.S. values.

“What occurred here 80 years ago is especially relevant in an era of increased aggression from global powers like Russia and China,” he says. “D-Day is a tiny reminder that the United States is a nation that fights for freedom and for liberty, we don’t fight for conquest and to take from other peoples. We fight for democracy.”

Brands, the historian, says the 80th commemoration will be one of the last great ceremonies where some of the men who took part in the landings will participate. Most surviving D-Day veterans are now around 100 years old. “It’s not likely that they’ll make it to the 85th anniversary,” he says.

Among those attending this year are a group of 13 Canadian veterans who are spending a week here to mark the anniversary, according to France’s Le Parisien newspaper. One of the group, 98-year-old Canadian American George Couture, was taken prisoner for 11 months after the D-Day landing.

“This is a lot more agreeable than my first trip to Normandy,” he told Le Parisien.

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