NORMANDY, France -- Members of the 1st Infantry Division's Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard and select Soldiers from 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div., participated in the 74th D-Day Commemoration May 30 to June 6 in France, walking in the steps of their combat predecessors.
These Soldiers toured the battlefields made infamous by Operation Overlord in 1944 such as Carentan, Omaha Beach and Sainte-Mère-Église.
Most notably for the 1st Inf. Div. was the ceremony recognizing "Big Red One" Silver Star recipient Charles Shay at his monument, as well as the 1st Inf. Div. Memorial on Omaha Beach.
"The 1st Inf. Div. waded ashore at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944," said Capt. Joshua Sanchez, 1st Inf. Div. actions officer for the trip and keynote speaker at the latter ceremony. "Its path was blocked by obstacles in the water, mined beaches and concrete pillboxes beyond. As Soldiers and materials bogged down on the beaches, Col. George Taylor, commanding the 16th Infantry Regiment, rallied the division by declaring 'there's two kinds of people are staying on the beach -- the dead and those who are going to die. Now, let's get out of here.' By late morning, the 1st Inf. Div. had climbed the heights beyond the beach and as night fell, the Germans pulled back. Approximately 3,000 division Soldiers were killed, wounded or missing, but the Big Red One had a foothold in France."
The Big Red One Soldiers were joined by representatives of several sister divisions including airborne units that conducted a multinational parachute jump. Division Soldiers were on hand to assist with medical coverage and were stationed along a river which ran through the drop zone to retrieve paratroopers who landed in the water.
"Being able to look up at the sky and watching all those paratroopers drop, and then pulling them from the river when needed kind of made me think, 'well what about the guys from the D-Day invasion?'" said Sgt. Joseph Hines, a Mesa, Arizona, native and an infantryman assigned to the CGMCG. "They didn't have people there waiting to pull them from the river. Which brought me a whole new perspective on the Soldiers from the Greatest Generation."
Following the jump day, Big Red One Soldiers took part in myriad ceremonies across the landscape of Normandy.
The ceremony was flanked by French color guards, citizens, CGMCG and a formation of 1st Inf. Div. Soldiers.
History enthusiasts clad in WWI-era uniforms with the Big Red One shield proudly sewn on their shoulders carried a guidon for Company E, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Inf. Div.
Most notably, Shay was in attendance as the guest of honor and presented flowers at the foot of the memorial in an emotional moment.
"Today we remember the brave American and French Soldiers who fought here," Sanchez, a native of San Diego, California, said. "As well, we greet our German allies as the friends they have become. We especially honor the Soldiers who died on Omaha Beach for the future we now live. We will never forget them. We will never forget Omaha. We will never forget our European friends who also cherish freedom."
Local families volunteered to host the U.S. and German Soldiers for dinner on the first night, allowing the three groups the chance to break bread as allies.
"My favorite aspect of the trip would have to be the reception of the French people, and how even more than in America they remember the sacrifices that America made for their freedom," said Sgt. Zachary Willis, a Bradley mechanic assigned to the CGMCG. "They honor us for that sacrifice and they hold it very personally. I believe that is something we could take back to the states, back to America and to our units and share that experience so that maybe we could build a better understanding of how that is over here."
For Willis, who studied the history of D-Day before coming on the trip, seeing the battlefields in person was more intense than expected.
"Honestly, it was an almost overwhelming experience," said Willis, originally from Lancaster, California. "To be able to walk in the footsteps of the people that landed on those beaches and to look at just a glimpse of what they had to go through -- I couldn't even imagine it. It was a very powerful and moving experience."