Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
D-Day spirit of remembrance lives on despite pandemic
CARENTAN, France — In a small Normandy town where paratroopers landed in the early hours of D-Day, applause broke the silence to honor Charles Shay. He was the only veteran attending a ceremony in Carentan commemorating the 77th anniversary of the assault that helped bring an end to World War II.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s D-Day commemorations are taking place with travel restrictions that have prevented veterans or families of fallen soldiers from the U.S., Britain and other allied countries from making the trip to France. Only a few officials were allowed exceptions.
Shay, who lives in Normandy, was a 19-yearold U.S. Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Today, he recalls the “many good friends” he lost on the battlefield.
Under a bright sun, the 96-year-old Penobscot Native American from Maine stood steadily while the hymns of the Allied countries were played Friday in front of the monument commemorating the assault in Carentan that allowed the Allies to establish a continuous front joining nearby Utah Beach to Omaha Beach.
Shay regretted that the pandemic “is interrupting everything.” He is expected to be the only veteran at Sunday’s anniversary day ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer.
“We have no visitors coming to France this year for two years now. And I hope it will be over soon,” he said.
Shay’s lone presence is all the more poignant as the number of survivors of the epochal battle dwindles. Only one veteran now remains from the French commando unit that joined U.S, British, Canadian and other allied troops in storming Normandy’s codenamed beaches.
Some French and a few other World War II history enthusiasts from other European countries gathered in Normandy.
Driving restored jeeps, dressed in old uniforms or joyfully eating at the newly reopened terraces of restaurants, they’re contributing to revive the commemorations’ special atmosphere — and keeping alive the memory of June 6, 1944.
“In France, people who remember these men, they kept them close to their heart,” Shay said. “And they remember what they did for them. And I don’t think the French people will ever forget.”
On Saturday morning, people in dozens of World War II vehicles, from motorcycles to jeeps and trucks, gathered in Colleville-Montgomery to parade down the nearby roads along Sword Beach to the sounds of a pipe band. Residents, some waving French and American flags, came to watch.
Henri-Jean Renaud, 86, remembers D-Day like it was yesterday. He was a young boy and was hidden in his family home in SainteMere-Eglise when more than 800 planes bringing U.S. paratroopers flew over the town while German soldiers fired at them with machine guns.
Describing an “incredible noise” followed by silence, he remembers crossing the town’s central square in the morning of June 6. He especially recalls seeing one dead U.S. paratrooper stuck in a big tree that is still standing by the town’s church.
“I came here hundreds of times. The first thing I do is look at that tree,” he said. “That’s always to that young guy that I’m thinking of. He was told: ‘You’re going to jump in the middle of the night in a country you don’t know’ ... He died and his feet never touched (French) soil, and that is very moving to me.”
D-Day cost the lives of 4,414 Allied troops, 2,501 of them Americans.