Editor’s note: This is the second of two dispatches from Modesto’s Joe Swain. He visited France for Thursday’s 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy landings that eventually liberated Europe during World War II.
The press gig isn’t as easy as it looks. We had to get up at 0300 to get to the media operation center at 0400 to be screened and briefed by the Secret Service (no wonder they’re not fond of the president).
My photographer wife, Ann, said she thought we were on vacation, and her sarcasm wasn’t lost on me. I reminded her that folks we were there to honor had it a lot tougher than we did.
The past two days on the Normandy coast have been cloudy with intermittent rain, but this morning, June 6, 2019, dawned bright with just enough clouds for definition. The weather cooperated today, just as it did for the Allies 75 years ago.
That day had dawned for German coastal defenders with the sight of the English Channel filled by a naval force of 6,800 warships, landing craft and auxiliary vessels. A surprising note for me: the overwhelming majority of warships flew the British flag. The UK also landed more men than the Americans, but because Omaha Beach was the US Forces’ responsibility, they suffered more casualties than the British.
The excitement and anticipation were palpable even at our early hour. Gen. Bill Matz (ret.), now general secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, spoke to assembled media about the importance of the day and challenging all present to make certain the next generation of citizens never forget the men who sacrificed all, or were willing to, for our freedom.
Folks started arriving a full three hours prior to the scheduled start of the ceremony. The grandstands slowly filled with families of survivors and other assorted VIPs.
Every branch of our armed forces was proudly represented inclass uniform. The US Army Europe Band played as the growing crowd anxiously awaited President Trump’s arrival. World War II veterans took their seats behind the podium as the band played “America the Beautiful.” The on-time arrival of Air Force One and subsequent short hop aboard the Marine One helicopter was broadcast on a jumbo screen, and as the wump-wump of rotor blades approached the cemetery, the crowds found their seats and settled in for the program’s start.
French President Macron and his wife arrived a few minutes after the Trumps, and Macron was the first to speak. He graciously expressed appreciation for America and the men who helped liberate Europe, and personally addressed the returning veterans with thanks and praise. President Trump was equally gracious in recognizing all of America’s allies. Trump and Macron then spent several minutes greeting many of the men, to the delight of the crowd.
The ceremony finished with several flyovers of modern and vintage aircraft. It was an exciting end to a picture-perfect day. Ann and I then spent time visiting with the family of Verlen Lander of Utah. Verlen’s four daughters and four granddaughters accompanied him to what may be his last reunion. He is 93 now, and was an 18-year-old paratrooper with the 101st Airborne back then. His family was justifiably proud.
There was a lot of talk about this being the last milestone anniversary celebration, but looking at some of these 90-somethings, I wouldn’t count them out for the 80th anniversary five years from now. After all, they are the heroes of 1944.
Joe Swain is a financial planner in Modesto and contributes to Stanislaus Magazine. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.