The spirit of remembrance of D-Day continues despite the pandemic


CARENTAN, France (AP) – In a small Norman town where paratroopers landed in the early hours of D-Day, applause broke the silence in honor of Charles Shay. He was the only veteran to attend a ceremony in Carentan commemorating the 77th anniversary of the assault that helped end World War II.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s D-Day commemorations take place with travel restrictions that have barred veterans or families of fallen soldiers from the United States, Britain and other allied countries to visit France. Only a few officials were allowed to make exceptions.

Shay, who now lives in Normandy, was a 19-year-old U.S. Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Today he remembers the “many good friends” he lost on the battlefield.

Under bright sunshine, the Penobscot Native American, 96, from Indian Island, Maine, stood as Allied hymns were played on Friday in front of the monument commemorating the Carentan assault that took place on Friday. allowed the Allies to establish a front continuity joining nearby Utah Beach to Omaha Beach.

Shay regretted that the pandemic “interrupts everything”. He is expected to be the only veteran at Sunday’s anniversary ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.

“We have not had visitors coming to France this year for two years now. And I hope it will be over soon, ”he told The Associated Press in Carentan.

Shay’s lonely presence is all the more poignant as the number of survivors of the epic battle dwindles. Only one veteran remains of the French commando unit which joined American, British, Canadian and other allied troops in storming the Norman beaches with the code name.

While France is considering open to vaccinated visitors As of next week, it’s too late for the D-Day anniversary. So, for the second year in a row, most public commemorations have been canceled. A few solemn ceremonies were maintained, with dignitaries and a few guests only.

Local residents, however, are arriving in greater numbers than last year, as France began lifting its internal restrictions on viruses last month.

A few French people and a few other WWII history buffs from neighboring European countries gathered in Normandy.

Driving restored jeeps, dressed in old uniforms or happily eating on the terraces of newly reopened restaurants, they help revive the special atmosphere of the commemorations – and keep the memory of June 6, 1944 alive.

“In France, the people who remember these men, they kept them close to their hearts,” Shay said. “And they remember what they did for them. And I think the French will never forget.

On Saturday morning, dozens of WWII vehicles, from motorcycles to jeeps and trucks, gathered in a field in Colleville-Montgomery to parade down nearby roads along Sword Beach to the sound of a group of bagpipes. . Locals, some waving French and American flags, came to watch.

Sitting in an old sidecar, Audrey Ergas, dressed in a vintage uniform including an aviator hat and glasses, said she comes from the southern city of Marseille every year, except last year due to travel restrictions related to the virus.

“We absolutely wanted to come… it’s a great pleasure, we needed it! she said. “We were afraid of feeling a little lonely, but in the end we were happy to even have small gatherings. “

Pascal Leclerc, member of the group Remember Omaha Beach 44, shared the same joy.

“We missed it a lot. It’s just fun, happiness, and also being able to pay tribute to all the veterans. This is the main objective, ”he said.

Henri-Jean Renaud, 86, remembers D-Day as if it were yesterday. He was a young boy and was in hiding in his family home in Sainte-Mère-Eglise when more than 800 planes carrying American paratroopers flew over the city as German soldiers fired at them with machine guns.

Describing an “incredible noise” followed by silence, he remembers walking through the town’s central square on the morning of June 6. He notably remembers seeing a dead American paratrooper stuck in a large tree that still stands near the town church.

“I have been here hundreds of times. The first thing I do is look at this tree, ”he said. “It’s always this young man that I think about. We told him: ‘You’re going to jump in the middle of the night in a country you don’t know’ … He’s dead and his feet never touched the ground (French), and that touches me a lot. “

More than 12,000 soldiers were temporarily buried in Sainte-Mère-Eglise during and after the Battle of Normandy, before being transferred to their final resting place.

In the years following the war, local people were allowed to visit cemeteries. “A lot of times people had adopted a grave because they had seen a name they liked… they were kind of like friends,” Renaud said.

“Some, especially at the beginning when there were no coffins yet, had been buried in the ground. They had become the Normandy region, ”he added, in a voice full of emotion.

On D-Day itself, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed on beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats. The Battle of Normandy hastened the defeat of Germany, which came less than a year later.

Yet that day alone claimed the lives of 4,414 Allied soldiers, including 2,501 Americans. More than 5,000 were injured. On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.

This year, Col. Kevin Sharp came with a delegation of three other US military officers from the 101st Airborne Division, based in Kentucky, to attend Friday’s commemorations in Carentan – the same division that participated in D-Day operations there. -low. His delegation received a special last-minute authorization to come to France despite virus restrictions.

The US military “really values ​​the legacy of the soldiers and paratroopers who came before us,” he told the PA. “It was important enough to send a small performance here to make sure our appreciation for their sacrifices was known.”

Comments are closed.