D-Day: France Remembers the Longest Day, Salutes its Liberators

D-Day June 6

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, off Omaha Beach, the battleship USS Texas — part of what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower called the Great Crusade* during which “we will accept nothing less than full victory…” — let loose the fury of her ten mighty 14 in (360 mm) guns and silenced the German guns atop Pointe du Hoc. Subsequently, the battleship attacked enemy anti-aircraft batteries near Vierville.

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Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks with 101st Airborne Division paratroopers before they board airplanes and gliders to take part in a parachute assault into Normandy as part of the Allied Invasion of Europe on D-Day. (Photo courtesy DOD.)

A few days later the USS Texas, at great risk to herself and her crew, went on to suppress the German gun batteries surrounding the vital port of Cherbourg. Two German shells hit the Texas, one of them killing one sailor and injuring ten.

It thus seems appropriate that today, seven decades later and 4,800 miles from that hallowed battle area, that same proud ship now in safe harbor near Houston, Texas, her guns silenced, will be the platform for one of the many ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day and yet another venue for the nation and the people of France to express their respect and gratitude to the World War II Allied heroes who sacrificed so much to help liberate France — and Europe.

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The USS Texas, now retired, at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, La Porte, Texas (Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)

Grateful to the United States and other allies for the World War II allegiances and sacrifices and notwithstanding occasional “philosophical” and political discords, France has steadfastly remembered the battles and honored the heroes of those battles which led to ultimate victory over the Nazis.

Witness the numerous monuments and memorials — in small hamlets and large cities and throughout the beautiful French countryside — that the French people have dedicated to the American and allied military who gave their lives in so many battles and missions on French soil and in the skies above.

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Monument in memory of American airmen killed during World War II in a B-17 crash near Persac, France. (Photo by author)

Witness the unselfishness and humaneness of the French people, and of other Europeans, to “adopt,” look after and honor thousands of graves of U.S. and allied soldiers who were killed during World War II.

Or take Andree Auvray, now 88, who would take photos of graves of American soldiers buried in Normandy, write letters and then mail photos, letters, “and in summertime a rose petal” to the soldiers’ families.

Catherine Gaschka and Angela Charlton at the Stars and Stripes write, “She wanted to send them ‘something that people could touch,’ [her son] said. ‘There is nothing more distressing than knowing that someone died somewhere, anywhere, without being able to tie it to an image.’”

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Brittany American Cemetery, Saint-James, France One of the many American cemeteries in France (Photo: Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission)

But France also remembers and is grateful to the veterans of those battles who are still alive — most of them are in their 90s now and are leaving us at an alarming rate of approximately 55 a day – and has reserved a special honor for those who fought on French territory in the four main campaigns for the liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Alsace-Lorraine and Northern France.

Today, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, France solemnly remembers and memorializes the more than 150,000 brave troops who swam, waded or crawled through the cold, choppy North Sea waters to set foot on those five, now almost sacred beaches of legend — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — and the nearly 20,000 men who parachuted from above during the largest amphibious landings and airborne operations mankind had ever seen. (Sadly, many — way too many — never made it ashore or reached French soil safely.)

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American troops help their exhausted comrades ashore at Utah Beach. The men reached Utah Beach, near Sainte-Mère-Église, on a life raft, after their landing craft was hit and sunk by German coastal defenses. (Photo courtesy Army.mil)

To thank and honor these veterans, the President of the French Republic, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, approved the award of the medal of Chevalier in the French Order of the Legion of Honor (Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur) — France’s highest, most prestigious decoration for merit or bravery — to American World War II veterans who fought in those battles and who helped liberate France from the Nazis.

Napoleon Bonaparte first established this high award and distinction in 1802 to honor extraordinary contributions to France.

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The Chevalier in the French Order of the Legion of Honor Medal (Courtesy Consulate of France, Houston)

As the 70th anniversary of D-Day approached and as the number of living Liberators shrinks each and every day, the French government, through its Embassy and Consulates in the U.S., intensified its efforts to identify and honor those last remaining heroes of our Greatest Generation.

The French National Assembly, in April of this year, passed a Resolution expressing gratitude and recognition to the members of the Allied Forces who took part in the landings in Normandy on D-Day and praised their “obstinacy and courage…that helped end the Second World War.”

Well aware of the “advanced age of the last surviving veterans,” the General Assembly emphasized the urgency to “express gratitude and appreciation to the members of the Allied forces including American and French forces which have participated in the D-Day operations.”

The Consulate of France in Houston, Texas, has been particularly active presenting the Legion of Honor Medal and other awards to qualified American veterans. Most recently, in March, aboard the USS Texas, dignitaries from Normandy where, offshore, the Texas performed so valiantly, presented 23 former crewmembers of that Dreadnought with mementoes containing sand grains from Utah Beach, “a Beach that was trodden on by young Americans who sacrificed themselves on the altar of liberty,” according to Jean-François Le Grand, president of the General Council of the Manche region in France.

The French delegation similarly thanked and honored more than 20 veterans (below) who served on French soil or in the air over France during World War II and, referring to those same grains of sand, Le Grand added “Grains of sand as a reminder of a commitment, a reminder of friends fallen on the field of honor and a reminder of the landings that liberated the world from the yoke of Nazi oppression.”

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Photo courtesy La Manche Conseil General

Today, seven decades after these soldiers, in the words of General Eisenhower on the tenth anniversary of D-Day, displayed so much “skill, determination and self-sacrifice,” France, through its Consul General in Houston, Sujiro Seam, will award France’s highest honor — the medal of Chevalier in the French Order of the Legion of Honor — to 35 US WWII Veterans who participated in the campaigns to liberate France.

The names of the 35 veterans to be decorated can be found here.

We will look at some of these heroes and at the many other celebrations here at home and in Normandy at the conclusion of this 70th anniversary of The Longest Day, a day which, in Eisenhower’s words, “set in motion a chain of events which affected the history of the entire world,” but also a day when, by day’s end, approximately 4,500 Allied troops had made the ultimate sacrifice on the Beaches of Normandy.

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* Listen to General Eisenhower’s entire speech below. (Video courtesy DOD.)

Lead Image: Soldiers wade ashore a Normandy Beach during the Allied Invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Courtesy U.S. Army.

Crossposted from the Huffington Post

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Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

  • dduck

    We salute all the people on the front lines and those geniuses that created and pulled this huge military feat off.

  • slamfu

    Stephen Ambrose is a major WWII historian and author, he wrote a book, “D-Day”. If you like military history, its a very thorough and readable account of this pivotal, brutal, and amazing day and the huge build up that led up to such a logistical ballet. He has another book called, “Citizen Soldier” that covers D-Day +1 to the fall of Berlin that is equally amazing.

    Here’s to remembering perhaps the biggest day in America’s psyche, the people who died, and of course the French. Better allies than many people would have us believe these days.

  • JSpencer

    Incredible courage, I can’t imagine what it must have been like. Not many of those guys left now…

    Btw, I’d love to visit that old battleship, but it’s a bit too far away for me.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks for the comments.

    JS:

    I was on that mighty ship today, at La Porte, Texas, to see 36 World War II veterans receive the Legion of Honor Medal for their combat service in France, and was able to touch those massive 14 in guns . I Don’t know where you live, but if you are anywhere within a 200 mile area, it is a worthwhile weekend trip to go and visit her.

    I hope to be able to write about some of those men (and that ship) this weekend.

  • a late bloomer

    I am only 57, but I am in awe of the courage and sacrifice these men displayed. I remember watching, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ years ago, and having to close my eyes during the opening scenes, so graphic they were. And to think, that was just a movie I was watching. These men, they’re the real deal.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    Thank you Dorian…DDay is, well, there is no word I know for the love I feel for the so very young men who waded forward, fell forward from the sky that day. I remember the ‘gold star’ mothers from our road. The story is of such triumph and such grief. Still.

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    Slamfu, regarding the heroism and endurance of the French, you are right. The pundits, if one can call prvaricators such, on all sides are invested in dishonoring many. We shall continue to ignore them. The French in so many ways, were and are brothers and sisters forever.

  • http://www.coachkp.com Kevin Purcell

    Witness the unselfishness and humaneness of the French people, and of other Europeans, to “adopt,” look after and honor thousands of graves of U.S. and allied soldiers who were killed during World War II.

    It is on my bucket list to do just that. Thanks Dorian.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, KP.

    We got very close to the Beaches a few years ago, but turned back because it was so cold and windy.

    Today, reflecting on what these men went through — the freezing cold water being just part — we realize what wimps we were/are…

  • http://www.coachkp.com Kevin Purcell

    Maybe one day you make a second go at it. If not, I am sure it has been in our mind for the right reasons.

    Two other Bucket list items for me are “El Camino de Santiago” or “The Way of St. James” …. and the hike up to Machu Picchu (have you been there?). The later being a urge of mine since I was eight.

    I need to get started on plans while I still have a modicum of fitness. By the time it is financially advisable I may be in a chair :)

  • http://www.coachkp.com Kevin Purcell

    For readers, “El Camino de Santiago” is a 600 mile hike from France to Spain. I would take my time and rest along the way :)

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Probably too late for me to tackle el Camino de Santiago, KP, but Machu Picchu (Machu Pikchu in Quechua) might be doable.

    Thanks