SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France -- U.S. Army Soldiers and their allies descended upon the Normandy region of France to commemorate the largest multi-national amphibious landing and operational military airdrop in history, a day that unites Europeans and Americans in the single bond of victory.
This year marks the 74th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 -- most commonly known as D-Day. The events of D-Day forged partnerships and reinforced transatlantic bonds that remain strong today. Overall, U.S. service members from 20 units in Europe and the U.S. will participate in events and ceremonies in almost 40 locations throughout the Normandy region of France as part of Joint Task Force Normandy 74 until June 7.
U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, WWII veterans, local leaders and residents gathered here at the Airborne Monument in the town square on May 31 to kick off the week-long commemoration and pay homage to the memory of the Americans who helped turn the tide of WWII. Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first town in France to be liberated.
"Our paratroopers had never met the people of this town, yet a permanent bond was formed in fire when the first paratrooper landed here on the morning of June 6, 1944," Maj. Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, the 82nd Airborne commanding general, said. "All around this town today we see that bond in our remembrance of that defining moment."
In English, Sainte-Mere-Eglise translates to "Holy Mother Church," and for the 82nd Airborne Division, it's a place of sanctuary.
"Our heroes are honored here," the general said. "The Double A patch flies all over this town. Today, 74 years later, the world turns its eyes to the small French town that flew that American flag and those of us today who wear this patch … will continue to carry out the legacy started here."
Sainte-Mere-Eglise was merely a point on a map for paratroopers on the night of June 5, 1944. It was a piece of geography for which they would risk their lives. They boarded aircraft knowing if they did not succeed here, the Germans would hold on for years longer.
"This place is so much more than a military objective now," Kurilla said. "Every year around this time, the grateful eyes of the free and the hopeful eyes of those who wish to be free turn here."
In an earlier ceremony, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, lauded former Sainte-Mere-Eglise Mayor Alexandre Renaud and his legacy to honor those American Soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
"Alexandre dedicated his life to this city … capturing the heroic acts of Airborne Soldiers and average citizens alike," Scaparrotti said. "He rebuilt this city, not just with brick and stone, but with books and stories that provide priceless record of this city's revival."
Scaparotti then turned to the paratroopers and said, "This is what history calls us to do -- to carry on the task, to continue the work, to carry forward the great and noble undertaking, to serve the cause of freedom. You prepare for your future by understanding the past. You carry on the All-Americans' legacy, legacy forever bound to Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a legacy proudly shared."
Over the next few days, stories of bravery, heroism, selfless service and sacrifice will be passed on as the way to honor the past and secure the future -- as well as reinforce the transatlantic bonds that remain just as strong 74 years later. Overall, JTF Normandy 74 will participate in more than 50 events and ceremonies.
"The world looks here for calm in the storm of a dangerous, confusing world," Kurilla said. "The world looks here for an example of the love that conquers hate. The world looks here to honor this place and its moment."