A last hurrah for D-Day heroes

Sgt. Bill Becker, 98, a turret gunner during World War 2 and part of a contingent of veterans who travelled to France for DDay.commemorations

FOR many, it will be the last big commemoration. The last reunion.

Eighty years after Allied armies invaded the beaches of Normandy, marking a definitive turning point in World War II, those veterans who are still alive and sound enough returned to France from the United States, Britain and Canada to commemorate the moment – gingerly, slowly, happily.

They number less than 200. Their average age is about 100.

As some of the veterans arrived, descending from a hulking 767 onto the tarmac of the small airport in Deauville – sometimes helped by multiple aides – many of those there to greet them grew teary in between their bursts of applause.

For a place saturated in the history of that grand landing, when some 156,000 Allied soldiers arrived on the coast and began to push the occupying Germans out of Normandy and then out of the rest of France, there is a deep sense of nostalgia.

“It’s very emotional,” said the airport director, Maryline Haize-Hagron, who like most Normandy natives, has an intimate story of D-Day.

Her grandfather Henri Desmet, after watching US parachutists land in the marshes near his farm on June 6, used his flat-bottom boat to row dozens to dry land so they could continue fighting.

“It’s such an honour to be able to welcome them back,” she said.

Desmet, like most witnesses, is dead now. And this anniversary comes at a time that feels darkly critical – there is a war in Europe, far-right movements are gaining ground across the continent, there is a shifting politics of anger.

The veterans, for their part, had individual reasons for returning. Some came to honour their fallen comrades. Others wanted to enjoy the pageantry of it all, one last time.

“These people love us so much. It’s overwhelming,” said Bill Becker, 98, moments after his arrival on the tarmac, where a large crowd of children and dignitaries, including France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron, greeted him.

Becker was a top-turret gunner on covert missions for America’s freshly created Office of Strategic Services – the predecessor to the CIA. His crew delivered supplies and secret agents to Resistance members behind enemy lines, flying a black B-24 Liberator on moonlit nights.

His suitcase had been set out in his bungalow in a retirement community in Hemet, a city in Southern California, for months – a totem of hope that he’d return to France, despite his myriad health issues.

“I made it,” he said with a tired smile.

If this was the last big commemoration of the fallen – and celebration of liberty – that featured so many veterans, then it was also be the biggest.

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The programme for the week of events across an 80km stretch of beaches ran more than 30 pages – with concerts, parades, parachute drops, convoys and ceremonies.

President Emmanuel Macron of France presided over eight commemorations in three days. Two dozen heads of state were expected, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

On the tarmac at Deauville, a US Army band played jazz-swing classics, and members of the US 4th Infantry Division formed an honour guard. A group of World War II history enthusiasts stood by their antique army jeeps, wearing 80-year-old uniforms. Children from a nearby elementary school waved American and French flags.

Emerging from the aircraft, each veteran was presented to the crowd via bullhorn. Some saluted. Others waved.

“I’m going to be 100,” one yelled triumphantly.

A battalion of wheelchairs awaited the veterans’ arrival.

“This is going to be the last hurrah,” said Kathryn Edwards, who, along with her husband, Donnie Edwards, runs the Best Defence Foundation, a non-profit that shepherded 48 US veterans to Normandy for a nine-day commemoration trip.

“Everything we do now, we want to blow their socks off,” Kathryn Edwards said.

The first time Donnie Edwards brought four World War II veterans to France to commemorate D-Day, in 2006, they jumped into the back of his rented van, were able to climb steps into rooms in a château and ate at whatever restaurant they could find.

At the time, Edwards was a professional football player with the San Diego Chargers who enjoyed attending re-enactment camps for World War II battles during the offseason. Seeing how crowds cheered as the veterans passed in parades through small villages in Normandy and the Netherlands, he decided he needed to bring others back.

“Every vet needs to come back and experience this,” Edwards said. “To know what they did is still respected and honoured.” He continued for years to do so out of his own pocket. Then in 2018, he and his wife founded the foundation.

Over the years, the Edwardses have had to make changes. No more vans. No more stairs. No more last-minute restaurants, where food might upset a 100-year-old constitution.

This year, the veterans were accompanied by a medical staff of 15, including a physiotherapist and a urologist.

Every veteran was partnered with a personal caregiver. The schedule was lightened to offer more rest time.

The French government’s intention was to shave down ceremonies to an hour so that they’d be less taxing for the centenarians, said Michel Delion, a retired army general who helped to run the anniversary programme, called Mission Liberation.

Even for France – whose president has an official “memorial adviser” – the stretch of land along the landing beaches takes commemoration to a whole next level.

The sides of the thin roads were dotted with commemorative plaques, statues and funerary markers. Roundabouts were decorated with antique tanks and other war equipment. The young faces of fallen soldiers looked down from lamppost standards.

The locals pulled out their own D-Day decorations. Even more flags – American, British, Canadian, French – fluttered.

Denis Peschanski, a historian who is in charge of Mission Liberation’s 15-member scientific advisory board, said D-Day had become so woven into France’s identity that the memory would remain even when the veterans were gone.

“There’s the revolution,” he said, referring to the 1789 overthrowing of the ancien regime, “and the landing during World War II, when we worked together to fight the Nazis. It’s fundamental”.

The memories of veterans are increasingly disjointed and faded with time. Many didn’t talk about the war until years after, if at all.

Becker was sworn to secrecy until the 1980s, when information about his unit – known as the carpetbaggers – was declassified.

When he landed at Harrington Airfield in England in early 1945, about 10 months after D-Day and following months of training in the United States, he and his crew were taken into a room.

“They said to us, ‘If you go out of here and say anything, you’ll get shot’,” he recalled.

The flight plans into enemy territory were so sensitive, only the navigator and pilot knew where they were going. Becker’s job, from his perch, was to protect against enemy planes and anti-aircraft guns – critical as the crew was flying just 400 to 600 feet above ground and navigating by the light of the moon.

This was his second trip to take part in the commemorations in Normandy, and it was particularly poignant as he was joined by the only other remaining member of his crew, Hewitt Gomez, 99.

For months, Becker had been talking about buying a bottle of Champagne for them to share. A reunion within a reunion.

“I feel very good that we did something to help win the war,” Becker said. “We did something in this world that made it better.” — ©2024 The New York Times Company

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