D-Day: France Remembers the Longest Day, Salutes its Liberators
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.
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.
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.
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.'”
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
* 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.
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