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Second World War veterans mark D-Day anniversary in Normandy

A Second World War re-enactor pays tribute to soldiers during a D-Day commemoration ceremony of the 78th anniversary for those who helped end the Second World War, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France (Jeremias Gonzalez/Ap)
A Second World War re-enactor pays tribute to soldiers during a D-Day commemoration ceremony of the 78th anniversary for those who helped end the Second World War, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France (Jeremias Gonzalez/Ap)

When D-Day veterans set foot on the Normandy beaches and other Second World War sites, they express a mix of joy and sadness.

Joy at seeing the gratitude and friendliness of the French towards those who landed on June 6 1944; sadness as they think of their fallen comrades and of another battle now being waged in Europe: the war in Ukraine.

Seventy-eight years on, as a bright sun was rising over the wide band of sand on Omaha Beach on Monday, US D-Day veteran Charles Shay expressed thoughts for his comrades who fell that day.

“I have never forgotten them and I know that their spirits are here,” he told the Associated Press.

Second World War veteran Charles Shay, 97, and Julia Kelly, a Gulf War veteran, pay tribute to soldiers during a D-Day commemoration ceremony of the 78th anniversary for those who helped end the Second World War, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France
Second World War veteran Charles Shay and Julia Kelly, a Gulf War veteran, pay tribute to soldiers during a D-Day commemoration ceremony in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy (Jeremias Gonzalez/AP)

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.

Mr Shay, who now lives in Normandy, was a 19-year-old US Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6 1944.

This year, Mr Shay handed over the remembrance task to another Native American, from the Crow tribe, Julia Kelly, a Gulf War veteran, who performed the sage ritual.

“Never forget, never forget,” she said.

“In this time, in any time, war is not good.”

Mr Shay’s message to young generations would be “to be ever vigilant”.

“Of course I have to say that they should protect their freedom that they have now,” he said.

For the past two years, D-Day ceremonies were reduced to a minimum amid Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Second World War re-enactors gather on Omaha Beach during a D-Day commemoration ceremony of the 78th anniversary for those who helped end the Second World War, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France
Second World War re-enactors gather on Omaha Beach during a D-Day commemoration ceremony in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France (Jeremias Gonzalez/AP)

This year, crowds of French and international visitors – including veterans in their 90s – are 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 Second World War 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,” Mr Wallace told the Associated Press.

Less than a month later, he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

He was ultimately liberated after 10 months and returned to the US.

Second World War re-enactors gather on Omaha Beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France
Second World War re-enactors gather on Omaha Beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy (Jeremias Gonzalez/AP)

Still, Mr 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.”

He was asked about the secret to his longevity.

“Calvados!” he joked, in reference to Normandy’s local alcohol.

On D-Day, Allied troops landed on the beaches codenamed 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.

History enthusiasts parade in Second World War 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
History enthusiasts parade in Second World War vehicles to commemorate the 78th anniversary of D-Day in Sainte-Mere-L’Eglise, Normandy (Jeremias Gonzalez/AP)

Mr Wallace, who is using a wheelchair, was among about 20 Second World War veterans who opened Saturday’s parade of military vehicles in Sainte-Mere-Eglise to great applause from thousands of people, in a joyful atmosphere.

He did not hide his pleasure, happily waving to the crowd as parents explained the achievements of Second World War heroes to their children.

Many history buffs, wearing military and civilian clothes from the period, also came to stage a re-enactment of the events.

In Colleville-sur-Mer on Monday, US Air Force aircraft flew over the American Cemetery during the commemoration ceremony, in the presence of army general 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.

For 82-year-old Dale Thompson, visiting the site over the weekend was a first.

Mr Thompson, who travelled from Florida with his wife, served in the 101st Airborne Division of the US military in the early 1960s.

He was stateside and saw no combat.

Headstones in the US cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy
Headstones in the US cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy (Jeremias Gonzales/AP)

Walking amid the thousands of marble headstones, Mr Thompson wondered how he would have reacted if he landed at D-Day.

“I try to put myself in their place,” he said.

“Could I be as heroic as these people?”