NORMANDY, France – Forty-five U.S. veterans of the “D-Day” invasion of Europe received a markedly different reception on their return for 79th anniversary commemorative events than they did when well-positioned Wehrmacht soldiers contested the Allied landing in June of 1944.
The veterans received a heroes’ welcome from Maj. Gen. Jeffery Broadwater, V Corps deputy commanding general, civic leaders, diplomats, corporate sponsors, event volunteers and an enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers. Senior French military officers, the U.S. ambassador to France and local officials as well as airport managers and event organizers participated prominently in the welcome event, held at the Deauville-Normandie Airport.
“Ivy Soldiers” from the 4th Infantry Division also participated in force. The division band, an honor guard, support personnel and a robust troop formation represented the Army and the country during the festivities. An energetic audience of around 250 participated.
The DCG thanked event organizers and French officials as well as the support Soldiers during well-received remarks. But he reserved his strongest praise for the veterans sitting directly in front of the podium when he spoke.
“Most importantly,” he told the densely packed audience filling the hangar, “I’d like to thank the real VIPs of today’s event – the veterans who made the long journey in honor of a campaign you’ve come to embody. Thank you for representing our country so proudly—just as you did 79 years ago. We’re honored to share this moment with you and remain in awe of your heroic efforts.”
“You are selfless heroes,” he added. “You marched in storied formations, served aboard formidable vessels and piloted legendary aircraft saving countless lives and restoring peace in the region. You are rightfully coined the greatest generation and I am honored to be here in support of you today.”
Broadwater, event planners, sponsors and other senior leaders greeted the veterans on the tarmac as they disembarked from the aircraft shortly after arrival. The soldier formation, band and a crowd of support staff, volunteers and well-wishers cheered each veteran enthusiastically as he – in one case, she – descended the ramp in their wheelchairs.
This being a “79th campaign anniversary,” most of the vets were over or approaching 100 years of age. The event, planned and hosted by the Best Defense Foundation, culminated in a reception, with many attendees greeting and thanking the veterans, and posing for photos. Hugs were as ubiquitous as handshakes as well-wishers ranging from young schoolchildren to “reenactors” clothed in period attire, veteran service organizers and business professionals embraced the opportunity to meet and greet their heroes.
Event organizers seemed very happy with the event – the second of what’s envisioned as an annual campaign – and strongly committed to veteran service endeavors.
“It’s very important and meaningful,” said Marie-Pascale Legrand, the event lead. “It’s deeply meaningful for these veterans. For around half of them, this is their first trip back to France since they served in the war. It’s an honor to have all these organizations and American units involved in this week of activities.”
Distinguished allied leaders also seemed enthusiastic about the event and the Normandy anniversary campaign.
“We’re very honored, proud and thankful,” said French Gen. Laurent Michon, who commands armed forces throughout the western region of his country. “As citizens, we’re grateful for all they’ve risked for our country and given for our freedom. It’s important we remember their courage and their sacrifice.”
“The relationship between our countries is special and historically unique,” he added. “And that special bond continues to this day. It’s important to maintain that relationship with the youth of France.”
As the DCG mentioned in his remarks, veterans included a broad swath of the military as it existed in the latter stages of World War II and the country as a whole in 1944. The veterans represented every region and a good chunk of U.S. states. They represented every service, every component and a healthy portion of branches and job specialties – skewing a bit toward combat arms. The Soldiers among the group served storied period formations, including V Corps.
One veteran served as a “Victory Corps” Operations NCO during the Normandy campaign. A Minnesota native, Jake Larson – then only 15 years old – fibbed about his age to enlist in the National Guard in 1938. His Guard unit mobilized, and the (very) young headquarters company clerk deployed to Northern Ireland. He subsequently transferred to V Corps, serving as an ops sergeant and even helping to assemble planning books for Operation Overlord – the invasion of Normandy.
Then-Sgt. Larson landed on Omaha Beach and somehow made it to the cliffs unwounded, dodging German machine gun fire along the way. In an authentically V Corps turn of fate, Larson pulled overnight duty with the “G3” shop that very evening to maintain 24-hour ops. The young NCO served through the Battle of the Bulge. He received his discharge in spring of 1945 – still younger when he left the Army than many peers when they joined.
The DCG introduced the culminating speaker of the event as he concluded his remarks. Former Sgt. Anthony Negra Jr., a 99-year-old Pennsylvania native who served with the 128th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 6th Armored Division, during the Normandy campaign, praised the French citizens who welcomed him and fellow U.S. Soldiers 79 years prior.
“For every little town that we went through, they were out there in the streets, waving at us, giving us wine, giving us eggs, giving us anything they had,” Negra recalled. “And we thank them to no end…. We thank you with all our hearts.”