I had the good fortune to be among the 12,000-plus invited guests at the 75th anniversary ceremonies commemorating the D-Day landings in Normandy.
All guests were brought in by shuttle buses from staging areas in nearby towns (except for the VIPs, like Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump and their supporting casts, who arrived by helicopter). The security lines were long, but we passed the time checking out the helicopter arrivals and applauding the mostly wheelchair-bound, heavily bemedaled D-Day survivors as they wheeled past on the way to the VIP tent.
We were among the last 4,000 to arrive at the American Cemetery, and the stage and podium seemed several football fields away in the distance. But giant Jumbotron screens gave us close-up views of Air Force One and the Marine One helicopter and its occupants as they landed, and of President Trump’s ceremonial greeting of guests with President and Mrs. Macron onto what is considered American soil.
When we took our eyes from the screens, we looked out over a sea of white crosses, each decorated with a U.S. and a French flag, stretching beyond the audience area for even more hundreds of yards. So many dead buried in tidy rows, as if drawn up for a regimental parade. An occasional Star of David marked a grave instead of a cross. A rare cross with gold lettering indicated a Medal of Honor recipient. An occasional soldier is “known only to God.” It seems right that all of the soldiers are equal in death, except for those singled out for their valor. The son of a U.S. president has the same marker as an unknown soldier.
Before the speeches, national anthems were sung. During the speeches, 12,000 people listened quietly. President Macron thanked the veterans who were present in English, and presented four of them with the French Legion of Honor (including air kisses on both cheeks). President Trump told stories of the heroics of two D-Day soldiers, then turned to shake their hands personally on the stage.
Afterward, the ceremony continued. We heard taps played by a distant trumpet, followed by a 21-gun salute delivered by three mighty howitzers aimed out over Omaha Beach. Five fighter jets flew over in the missing man formation. A platoon of other military aircraft filled the sky, emulating the flocks of fighters and bombers on D-Day. Finally, a second squadron of nine jets, trailing red, white and blue contrails, roared across the sky.
The entire event was both humbling and satisfying. We had paid appropriate homage to those who fought for us, and in doing so honored those who are still fighting.
Our French guide had told us that in France, the D-Day landings are never referred to as an invasion. Rather, they were the forces of liberation. Thursday is Independence Day. Let’s celebrate our own liberation with due ceremony, while remembering those we owe it to.
Note: This will be my last column for a while. I’ve enjoyed the discipline of writing once a month, and treasured the feedback from my readers. Thanks to the Town Crier for giving me space and latitude to give you “A Piece of My Mind” for the past six and a half years.