COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Joy and sadness in acute doses poured out on the beaches of Normandy Monday, the 78th anniversary of D-Day.
As several dozen D-Day veterans — now all in their 90s — set foot on the sands that claimed so many colleagues, they are thankful for the gratitude and friendliness of the French toward those who landed here on June 6, 1944.
As a bright sun rose over the wide band of sand at Omaha Beach, U.S. D-Day veteran Charles Shay expressed thoughts for his comrades who died here 78 years ago.
“I have never forgotten them and I know that their spirits are here,” he said.
The 98-year-old Penobscot Native American from Indian Island, Maine, took part in a sage-burning ceremony near the beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. 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.
He said he was especially sad to see war in Europe once 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 human beings like to, I think they like to fight. I don’t know,” he said. “In 1944, I landed on these beaches and we thought we’d bring peace to the world. But it’s not possible.”
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 were present at the commemoration.
Amid 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.
“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 said.
Less than a month later, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was ultimately liberated after 10 months and 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.”
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.
U.S. Air Force aircraft flew over the American Cemetery during the commemoration ceremony, in the presence of Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The place is home to the gravesites of 9,386 people who died fighting on D-Day and in the operations that followed.
Milley had strong words about Ukraine at the American Cemetery ceremony, vowing that the U.S. and its allies would keep up their “significant” support to Ukraine.
“Kyiv may be 2,000 kilometers away from here, they too, right now, today, are experiencing the same horrors as the French citizens experienced in World War II at the hands of the Nazi invader,” Milley said in a speech. “Let’s not those only here be the last witnesses to a time when our Allies come together to defeat tyranny.”
WWII veteran Charles Shay, 97 pays tribute to soldiers during a D-Day commemoration ceremony of the 78th anniversary for those who helped end World War II, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, Monday, June 6, 2022. (AP Photo/ Jeremias Gonzalez) U.S. veteran Raymond Dawkins attends the 78th anniversary of D-Day ceremony, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial of Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach, Monday, June, 6, 2022. The ceremonies pay tribute to the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere who landed on French beaches on June 6, 1944, to restore freedom to Europe after Nazi occupation. (AP Photo/ Jeremias Gonzalez) A woman holds a bouquet of roses during the 78th anniversary of D-Day ceremony, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial of Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach, Monday, June, 6, 2022. The ceremonies pay tribute to the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere who landed on French beaches on June 6, 1944, to restore freedom to Europe after Nazi occupation. (AP Photo/ Jeremias Gonzalez)