CARENTAN, France (AP) – In a small Normandy town where paratroopers landed in the wee hours of D-Day, applause broke the silence in honor of Charles Shay. He was the only veteran to attend a ceremony in Carentan to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the attack that contributed to the end of 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 US, UK and other allied countries from traveling to France. Only a few officials were allowed to make exceptions.
Shay, who now lives in Normandy, was a 19-year-old US Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Today he remembers the “many good friends” he lost on the battlefield.
Under the bright sun, the 96-year-old Penobscot Indian from Indian Island, Maine, stood quietly while the Allied hymns were played on Friday in front of the memorial commemorating the attack in Carentan, which enabled the Allies to maintain a continuous front, which connects nearby Utah Beach with Omaha Beach.
Shay regretted that the pandemic is “cutting everything off”. He is expected to be the only veteran at the anniversary ceremony on Sunday at the Colleville-sur-Mer American Cemetery in Normandy.
“This year we haven’t had any visitors to France for two years. And I hope it’s over soon, ”he told The Associated Press in Carentan.
Shay’s lonely presence is all the more poignant as the number of survivors of the epochal battle dwindles. There is only one veteran left of the French commando that joined forces with U.S., British, Canadian and other allied forces to storm the codenamed Normandy beaches.
While France plans to open to vaccinated visitors from next week, that comes too late for the D-Day anniversary. This is the second year in a row that most public commemorative events have been canceled. Some solemn ceremonies were performed, only with dignitaries and a few guests.
Local residents are arriving in greater numbers than last year, however, as France started lifting its internal virus restrictions last month.
Some French and some other World War II history buffs from neighboring European countries gathered in Normandy.
They drive restored jeeps, wear old uniforms or eat happily on the newly opened terraces of the restaurants, they help to bring the special atmosphere of the commemorations back to life – and to keep the memories of June 6, 1944 alive.
“In France, the people who remember these men kept them in their hearts,” Shay said. “And they remember what they did for them. And I think the French will never forget it. “
On Saturday morning, people in dozens of World War II vehicles, from motorcycles to jeeps and trucks, gathered in a field in Colleville-Montgomery to roam the nearby streets along Sword Beach to the sounds of a bagpipe band. Residents, some of whom waved French and American flags, came to watch.
Sitting in an old sidecar, Audrey Ergas wore a vintage uniform with an aviator hat and glasses and said she comes from the southern city of Marseille every year except last year due to virus travel restrictions.
“We really wanted to come … it’s a great pleasure, we needed it!” She said. “We were afraid that we might feel a little alone, but in the end we were happy to have small gatherings too.”
Pascal Leclerc, member of Remember Omaha Beach 44 group, shared the same joy.
“We missed it a lot. It’s just fun, makes you happy and can also pay tribute to all veterans. That’s the main goal, ”he said.
Henri-Jean Renaud, 86, remembers D-Day like it was yesterday. He was a young boy and was hidden in his parents’ house in Sainte-Mere-Eglise when more than 800 planes with US paratroopers flew over the city while German soldiers were shooting at them with machine guns.
He described an “incredible noise” followed by silence and recalls crossing the city’s central square on the morning of June 6th. He particularly remembers seeing a dead US paratrooper trapped in a large tree that still stands next to the town’s church.
“I’ve come here hundreds of times. The first thing I do is look at this tree, ”he said. “It’s always about the young guy I think of. He was told: ‘You’re going to jump into a country you don’t know in the middle of the night’ … He died and his feet never touched (French) ground and that touches me very much. “
More than 12,000 soldiers were temporarily buried in Sainte-Mere-Eglise during and after the Battle of Normandy before being brought to their final resting place.
In the years after the war, the locals were allowed to go to the cemeteries. “Often times people had adopted a grave because they saw a name they liked … they were a bit like friends,” said Renaud.
“Some, especially in the beginning, when there were no coffins, were buried in the ground. They had become the soil of Normandy, ”he added in a voice filled with emotion.
On D-Day itself, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed on beaches code-named Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold carried by 7,000 boats. The Battle of Normandy hastened Germany’s defeat, which came less than a year later.
Nevertheless, this single day cost the lives of 4,414 Allied soldiers, 2,501 of them Americans. More than 5,000 were injured. Several thousand were killed or wounded on the German side.
That year Col. Kevin Sharp came with a delegation of three other US military officers from the 101st Airborne Division, based in Kentucky, to attend Friday’s memorial services in Carentan – the same division that participated in D-Day operations there. His delegation received special permission at the last minute to come to France despite virus restrictions.
The US military “really values the legacy of the soldiers and paratroopers who came before us,” he told the AP. “It was important enough to send a small representation here to make sure our appreciation for their victims is known.”