On Friday, June 6, world leaders and veterans will gather at the war cemeteries in Normandy, in northern France. They will honor tens of thousands of fallen World War II soldiers who lie buried along the French coastline of the English Channel. The ceremonies will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the start of World War II’s most important battle.
On June 6, 1944, Allied troops invaded Nazi-controlled France by sea. The giant invasion force included a fleet of about 54,000 warships and about 300,000 soldiers, from the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and several other countries. Once ashore, the troops fought their way through Normandy, village by village, crushing or driving back the German forces in their path under heavy bombing from the air. It was a brutal three-month battle.
In all, about 100,000 soldiers on both sides, and about 20,000 Normandy citizens, were killed. The invasion broke the German occupation of Europe. It also liberated the horrifying Nazi concentration camps, and ended the conflict that left much of Western Europe in physical and economic ruin.
Ceremonies at Normandy
For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, hundreds of surviving veterans are uniting all week on Normandy’s beaches. Dozens of villages are hosting photo exhibitions, veterans’ gatherings, fireworks, and military fly-pasts.
President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande will attend a wreath-laying ceremony on Friday morning at the U.S. war cemetery in the tiny French village of Colleville-sur-Mer—the burial site for 9,387 young Americans. Obama and Hollande will also attend an international ceremony on Normandy’s Sword Beach, in the village of Ouistreham, along with other world leaders from the countries that fought the Nazis. Russian President Vladimir Putin will take part, to commemorate Russia’s heavy loss of life against German forces. In a sign of postwar unity, the ceremonies will also honor about 23,000 young German soldiers killed in Normandy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and many German veterans will attend.
These memorial ceremonies happen every five years, but this year’s events will likely be the last ones to include veterans of D-Day in significant numbers. The veterans are now in their late-eighties and early-nineties. They are aware that this is probably their final visit—and in many cases, their only visit.
The Greatest Generation
D-Day veterans say they fear that as their generation—nicknamed “the greatest generation”—fades, so too might interest in their experience. “I am afraid people might forget the war, and the misery it brought,” Bernard Dargols, 94, a D-Day veteran in the U.S. Army, said recently. “The one reason I am asked to tell my story is that there are so few of us veterans left. I didn’t read these things in books. I was there.”
Dargols, a Paris-born Jew, immigrated to the U.S. in 1938 and became a U.S. citizen. Six years later, he landed on Normandy’s Omaha Beach as a U.S. Army staff sergeant. As a native French speaker, he became a crucial U.S. intelligence agent.
Dargols says he still recalls the intense terror he felt during on D-Day, as he came ashore under heavy bombing with little military training and no combat experience. “I was very scared,” he says.
British war historian Antony Beevor is the author of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. He says that for many Americans, World War II was the last great moral combat. “The reason why World War II has such a powerful influence on our imagination is because the moral choices were so great and important,” Beevor says. “That’s the most important lesson for younger generations.”
And at least for now, veterans like Dargols are still here to teach it.