OMAHA BEACH, France - More than 20 Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division helped commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day June 6 by participating in three ceremonies at Omaha Beach.
The historic day began at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, at an airstrip that was one of the first to be operational shortly after the D-Day invasion, which was June 6, 1944. The first flight, which transported the wounded, touched down the evening of June 9, 1944. The 834th Engineer Aviation Battalion constructed the airstrip in less than two days. The field quickly became a logistical hub for combat operations for the allied forces in the region.
Many of the passengers on those initial flights were Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, known as the "Big Red One."
Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Grinston, 1st Inf. Div. senior enlisted adviser, served as an honorary guest at an airstrip ceremony Friday, laying flowers to pay homage to those who died trying to build the strip.
Shortly afterward, a formation of 1st Inf. Div. Soldiers marched down the bluffs, singing cadence on the way to their next destination. As they passed the bluffs, they were in full view of the beachhead.
"It's just shocking," said Sgt. Tami VanZandt, a geospatial intelligence non-commissioned officer, Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div. "You really see what advantages (the German defenders) had on us at the time."
The Soldiers soon arrived at the 467th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion memorial and paid their respects with flowers and the playing of taps. The ceremony took place on a German pillbox where the monument was dedicated in 1994. The battalion suffered many casualties as they systematically neutralized the German bunkers defending the beach. Their actions gave 1st Inf. Div. Soldiers relief as they continued to storm their objectives on D-Day.
The Big Red One Soldiers in France for the 70th anniversary next marched along the waters of Normandy to the 1st Inf. Div. and 29th Infantry Division memorial on Omaha Beach. The site marked where each unit's area of responsibility met during the invasion. Grinston again served as the honorary guest and flowers were placed upon the historical marker.
He was joined by another special guest, retired Air Force Col. Arnold Gabriel, 89, an honorary conductor for the D-Day 70 Memorial Wind Band. He led the band as its members played more than eight songs during the ceremony. On D-Day, Gabriel was an Army private who landed with the 29th Inf. Div. in the first wave. He returned for the first time 70 years later.
"Somebody asked me what it was like on D-Day," Gabriel said. "It is one of those things that is indescribable. You can watch a lot of movies, but they'll never be able to capture the real chaos that really happened."
For his bravery and actions, local French leaders awarded him with a French Musical Doctorate.
Soldiers of the 1st Inf. Div. focused their commemoration efforts across Omaha Beach, as other U.S. Army units attended the ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.