The historic 1st Infantry Division proudly returned to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, from June 1 to June 6, 2023, for the 79th anniversary of D-Day. A group of 28 Soldiers represented the Division over a week-long gauntlet of prestigious commemorations to the battle that determined the fate of democracy in Europe.
The First Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One for its iconic patch, was one of the units that participated in the famed landing in 1944. The Division witnessed some of the fiercest resistance at the Omaha Beach landing site, with hundreds falling in the first wave of attacks.
Despite fearsome weather conditions and deeply entrenched positions manned by some of the Third Reich’s most elite units, the Big Red One, alongside its sister Divisions, took the two beaches and then proceeded to liberate all of Europe over the course of the War’s last two years. Elements of the Big Red One participated in nearly every Allied front of the European War.
The Big Red One Soldiers in attendance at the festivities were a team of highly motivated NCOs. Each Soldier who attended the various ceremonies were chosen by their organization for their contributions to Ft. Riley and the Army as a whole. This decision was part of 1st Infantry Division’s ongoing ‘Year of the NCO,’ which seeks to develop and honor the capabilities of the NCO Corps in building a lethal, combat-credible, modern force.
“NCOs are the backbone of the Army,” said 1st Sgt. Michael Brockman, the Headquarters and Headquarters Company United States Army Garrison, Ft. Riley first sergeant and the noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of the events for 1ID. “Throughout history NCOs have had to take charge in the absence of orders from pre-war to mission complete. This event highlights their contributions and gives us the chance to honor them for their bravery.”
Soldiers were particularly honored by the chance to meet some of the heroes of the battle. 43 D-Day veterans from every branch of Service were in attendance.
“The youngest of them was 99,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ashlar Olson, an air traffic controller with Headquarters Sustainment Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Infantry Division. “It honestly blows my mind to see so many of them here. It’s a testament to their power that they can make it over here at this age.”
Master Sgt. (ret.) Charles Norman Shay was one of those recognized veterans. Shay is a decorated WWII veteran from the Penobscot Nation who served as a medic with the Big Red One during the war. The Charles Shay WWII Indian Memorial stands a short distance away from the 1st ID memorial and is a celebration and remembrance of all the First Nations people who gave their life in the struggle against the Axis forces.
“The 1st Infantry Division is the most historic unit we have,” said Brockman. “It all gets put into perspective when you come out and see the things they’ve seen and touched the places they’ve touched.”
Brockman went on to say that the experience deepened his connection to Ft. Riley.
“To have that level of unit pride is one that every unit should have,” said Brockman. “This amplified everything for me and really showed me what it means to be a Big Red One Soldier.”
On June 6th, the Big Red One Soldiers gathered at the 1st Infantry Division Monument to remember the wartime dead. The ceremony was presided over by the commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division and Ft. Riley, Maj. Gen. John V. Meyer III, alongside the division sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Mullinax. Wreaths were laid to commemorate the fallen, after which the Soldiers were given the opportunity to interact with the visitors, including people from the surrounding communities.
“The French are the most accommodating people you could ever meet,” said Brockman. “They are the most kind, generous and honorable people. We were treated like family in their country.”
Soldiers returned home between the 7th and the 8th of June after taking time to rest from the dozens of ceremonies and commemorations. Afterwards, many remarked on how their perspective on the events of that fateful battle changed, and how they’ll honor the day going forward.
“It was amazing,” said Sgt. Meliza Arias, a power generation equipment repairer with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, Division Artillery, 1st Infantry Division. “It’s truly an honor to get this experience. There’s so much history here and I hope everyone gets the chance to see this place.”