D-Day+ 65 years: Obama set to make Normandy landing
Veterans still make their way back - and the locals still thank them for their role in a decisive battle for the Continent.
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Yet even without the high-profile meeting between President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the American cemetery overlooking Omaha, D-Day interest is surging past what planners imagined – partly due to dwindling numbers of veterans, but also due to the day's sheer historical significance.
Veterans who remember the so-called "longest day" – the gray and rainy June 6, 1944, when allied forces stormed ashore to take a foothold in France and ultimately overthrow Hitler's Europe – are now in their late 80s and 90s.
When they hit the beach, they were in their late teens or early 20s. Most of the officers, who are typically a bit older, have passed. In Paris Friday, 50 D-Day vets received the Legion of Honor, France's highest award.
Although Operation Overlord, the most complex assault ever attempted, has been memorialized in books and movies, including accounts of the "greatest generation" in popular films, like "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan," as well as in blowout 50th and 60th anniversary celebrations, local officials have feared that the exploits of the men might fade.
"Every five years – since the 50th anniversary – is called the last big D-Day event," says Ray Pfeiffer, a former US naval officer, who assisted with the production of "Saving Private Ryan."
"But unlike World War I, it won't sink into oblivion," Mr. Pfeiffer says. "The stakes were more universal: If the allies failed on this beach, all history, not just European, would be different."
In this sense, D-Day remains popular as a handle on history, experts say. The Normandy memorial in Caen gets 400,000 visitors a year.
This week, up and down the verdant coast, subcultures of D-Day reenactors and history buffs ply the winding roads in authentic jeeps and troop carriers. Dozens of towns are conducting wreath-laying ceremonies at hundreds of monuments.
Formerly taboo historical debates on the Normandy campaign continue to surface – Allied executions of German prisoners, or British historian Antony Beevor's assertion last week that Allied bombing of Caen in Normandy was "close to a war crime."
WWII showed 'the need to confront evil'
Obama's presidency has sparked new interest in Europe in the role of black soldiers in the invasion. This September at Utah Beach, where many US forces landed, the first memorial honoring fallen US Navy engineers and special shore brigades was inaugurated. These soldiers, forerunner of the SEALs, actually led the invasion with the job of clearing obstacles in the ocean that would impede the landing craft. Among the services, they suffered the highest proportional losses on D-Day, according to Mr. Pfeiffer.
"World War II was cataclysmic, showing the need to confront evil," says John Huston, of San Diego, who was here with his father of the same name, an officer in the 135th battalion. "It was a time in which everything people could do to and for each other, happened. My father is 91. He'll be 96 in five years, and I'm not sure we will come back."
The saving graces of propaganda?
Bill Coleman, a staff sergeant from the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne – the so-called "Band of Brothers" – received the Legion of Honor in Paris on Friday. He first visited Paris under very different circumstances, as a guest of the German Army.