French Determined To Keep D-Day Memories Alive
SCOTT SIMON, host:
All week the seaside villages along the Normandy coast have been celebrating the D-Day anniversary. This year's occasion is seen as especially important because it may be one of the last times that living witnesses of D-Day will take part in commemorations.
Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.
(Soundbite of the ocean)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: In the tiny village of Ville-Sur-Mer, hundreds of people are gathered on the boardwalk along Omaha Beach to listen to the memories of American veterans who fought here. In former years, dozens of veterans took part in ceremonies like this one. Today, there are only a handful.
Mr. HAROLD BAUMGARTEN(ph): My name is Harold Baumgarten. I'm from Jacksonville Beach, Florida. And this was the smallest but most heavily defended part of Omaha Beach. It was portrayed in two motions pictures - "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan" - and I was there.
BEARDSLEY: While a D-Day anniversary is about remembering, it's also clearly about having a good time.
(Soundbite of music)
BEARDSLEY: For the last week, World War II buffs, old car fans, and men who just want to play soldier have poured into Normandy from across Europe and North America. The usually quiet villages above the landing beaches have the atmosphere of a country fair. Antique dealers trade in World War II paraphernalia and people tool around in World War II-era vehicles.
Planes fly overhead. The whole scene has the feel of a Hollywood set with everyone dressed to play a part.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BEARDSLEY: A group of English people in full battle regalia picnics in the grass on the side of the road. Bill Betts(ph) of North Hamptonshire shows off his ambulance.
Mr. BILL BETTS: The World War II American ambulance - a Dodge, 1943 - and I restored it all myself to get it here this weekend. And this is with stretchers in the back and with a first aid kit.
(Soundbite of bells)
BEARDSLEY: But behind the gaiety here there is also a sense of urgency to hear from those who experienced this historical invasion, whether as soldiers or civilians.
In the village of St. Laurent(ph) Sur-Mer on Omaha Beach, there are only a few elders left who witnessed the invasion. Today, these octogenarians lead a walking tour through the village while they tell their story. Dozens of people have shown up to follow and listen, including parents who want their children to know what happened here.
Eighty-seven-year-old Andre Laroute(ph) was 22 years old in June 1944. He remembers that everyone was anxious for the Americans to arrive after four long years of German occupation.
Mr. ANDRE LAROUTE: (Through translator) And we kept wondering why are they taking so long, but then when we saw the massive amounts of material and equipment they brought, we understood. It was staggering, unthinkable. You have to remember, at that time there were only two cars in the village.
BEARDSLEY: Since that day, St Laurent Sur-Mer has welcomed Americans back with open arms.
Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)
Unidentified Woman #1: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Two of those Americans are 87-year-old Edward and Jean Tierney(ph), who met here while serving as a pilot and a nurse. They have come back to 15 D-Day celebrations in St. Laurent Sur-Mer. Today they're being honored with a ceremony high on a bluff where their air strip used to be.
Mr. EDWARD TIERNEY (WWII Veteran): Remembering those flights coming in over that ravine, landing on this field - it's always a wonderful experience to be back here. It's a very significant spot for us in our lives. You speak.
Mr. JEAN TIERNEY (WWII Nurse): It's too emotional.
Mr. TIERNEY: Too emotional.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Mayor): (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The mayor thanks Edward and Jean for their courage. Then, standing side-by-side, they lay a wreath at the foot of the new monument in the middle of wheat fields looking over a vast blue sea.
(Soundbite of "The Star-Spangled Banner")
BEARDSLEY: As the Stars and Stripes is hoisted, "The Star-Spangled Banner" drifts out over Omaha Beach.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Normandy, France.
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