D-Day photos: Veterans remember the Normandy landings on the 80th anniversary

Veterans of the crucial battle of World War II are disappearing. Europe, faced with a new conflict, remembers what its comrades died for.

Roger Cohen reported from Normandy and Laetitia Vancon from Normandy and the United States.

They were normal. The young people from far away who landed on June 6, 1944, under a hail of Nazi gunfire from the cliffs of Normandy, did not consider themselves heroes.

No, said Gen. Darryl A. Williams, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, the Allied soldiers “in this great battle were ordinary young men,” young men who “faced this challenge with courage and an extraordinary will to win, because freedom.”

Facing the general at a ceremony this week in Deauville, on the Normandy coast, were 48 American survivors of that day, the youngest of whom was 98, most of them 100 or older. The veterans were sitting in wheelchairs. They waved, quite brightly. Eight decades have passed, many of them passed in silence because the memories of the war were too terrible to talk about.

When the 90th anniversary of D-Day marks the 90th anniversary of D-Day in 2034, there may be no vets left. The beaches' living memory of their sacrifice will no longer exist.

“Dark clouds of war are forming in Europe,” General Williams said, alluding to the allies' determination to defend Ukraine from Russian attack. This eightieth anniversary of the landing is a celebration, but a somber one. Europe is troubled and apprehensive, extremism devours its liberal democracies.

For more than 27 months, a war has been underway on the continent that has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians and Russians. Russia was not invited to the commemoration, even though the role of the Soviet Red Army in Hitler's defeat was crucial. Ten years ago, President Vladimir V. Putin attended. Now he's talking about nuclear war. It is a time of rifts and uncertainties.

All the long-serving veterans returning to Normandy know where such a drift can lead, how easy it is to sleepwalk towards the conflagration.

“It's between you and your superiors,” said George K. Mullins, 99, former sergeant major of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, as he recalled the day he landed on Utah Beach with a folding carbine clipped to his belt and two K-rations. “We know there's a spirit somewhere.”

D-Day was not an end but a beginning. The Normandy countryside, zigzagging between the hedges that still divide the fields and teeming with insects in the sunlight, took a terrible toll.

Sergeant Mullins, now living in Garberville, California, looked up from his trench a couple of days after the fighting began and, two trenches away, saw Pfc. William H. Lemaster, peering over the edge. It proved to be the last act of this young man from West Virginia.

A German sniper's bullet passed through Private Lemaster's head and killed him – a memory so vivid that this week Sergeant Mullins took a moment to kneel before his friend's grave in the Colleville-sur-Mer American Cemetery .

There are 9,388 graves in the cemetery, most of them shaped like white Latin crosses, a handful of which are Stars of David commemorating Jewish American service members. As anti-Semitism rises again in Europe, they seem somehow more evident.

The Allied army did not advance to save the Jews of Europe: proposals to bomb the railways to Auschwitz were rejected. But the end of the war in Europe, 11 months after D-Day, ended Hitler's massacre of six million Jews.

In Germany today, Maximilian Krah, the leading candidate of the far-right Alternative for Germany party in this weekend's elections to the European Parliament, says that not all members of the Waffen SS, the Nazi paramilitary group, were criminals. Another AfD leader, Björn Höcke, was convicted last month of using a Nazi slogan.

“A far-right party that openly displays its historical revisionism gets up to 20% support in polls,” said Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “I never thought I would see something like this in my entire life. There seems to be no limit to how far the far right will go.”

History may not repeat itself but it rhymes, as Mark Twain is said to have noted.

Here in Normandy, the thousands of people who died as the Allies secured a foothold in Europe are everywhere, with their black-and-white photographs taped to wooden posts on the First (American) Division road leading from Colleville -sur-Mer down at Omaha Beach. Innocence and hope predominate in their youthful expressions. Roland Barthes, the French essayist, observed that catastrophe is hidden in every old photograph.

Perhaps the world, just two years after the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, does not need to remember what it means to be swept away by the wind of history, what the collapse of every hypothesis means, what it means to feel the extreme fragility of freedom and life. Of course, with armed conflicts raging in Ukraine and Gaza, there is no need to remind us of war's enduring grip on humanity.

Hate gets the blood pumping in a way that reasoned compromise and civil disagreement – ​​foundations of any healthy society living in freedom under the rule of law – do not. Today, many politicians in Western societies do not hesitate to exploit such emotions to attack “the other”.

Patrick Thomines, mayor of Colleville-sur-Mer, stood in front of a school adorned with French, American and European Union flags, symbolizing the post-war transatlantic founding of the West. “We realize that peace is never achieved forever, it is an eternal struggle to guarantee it,” he said. “We should unite to avoid war, but extremist parties are growing and represent exactly the opposite of what we are celebrating here.”

The celebration has an extraordinary magnetism. The horrific cratered landscape of the Pointe du Hoc, reminiscent of the still pitted terrain of the Battle of Verdun in World War I, raises the question of how the American Rangers scaled that cliff. People flock to see it and wonder.

Converging from countless countries, they unite in uniformed reenactment groups. They careen around and between hedges in their jeeps, causing endless traffic jams. They party, dance and gather on the vast, wide sandy beaches in solemn contemplation of how Europe was saved from Hitler. Their children go to museums that recreate the terrain and the battle.

Yuri Milavc, a Slovenian who left Ljubljana in a jeep together with 18 friends, also in jeeps, said that he has now come several times to the Normandy commemoration. The sensations today were more mixed, he said. “I remember how Europe once felt,” he told me. “Now Putin has shown his true colors and is fighting the last imperialist war in Europe.”

President Biden will meet Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, in Normandy this week, a show of allies' support for the country at a time when it is under growing Russian attack. President Emmanuel Macron, who invited Biden to a state dinner on Saturday, also chose to draw a strong link between the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the freedom struggle in Ukraine.

“I know that our country, with its courageous and valiant youth, is ready with the same spirit of sacrifice as our ancestors,” he said in a speech Wednesday in Brittany.

When it comes to spirit, it's hard to match that of Cpl. Wilbur Jack Myers, 100, of Company B, 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion, assigned to the 104th and 42nd Infantry Divisions. He was so excited to come to Normandy for the anniversary that he said he didn't feel “over 85!” To prove it, he enjoyed karaoke sessions at home in Hagerstown, Maryland.

One of 13 children in a Maryland family trained to be an artilleryman, Corporal Myers arrived in Cherbourg, France, on September 23, 1944. It was the beginning of an odyssey that ended with the liberation of the Nazi camp at Dachau near in Munich at the end of April 1945.

“It really hurt to look at those skinny prisoners, and I knew many were already dead,” Corporal Myers told me. “I have never forgotten it, but for 50 years I was silent because if I had tried to talk about the war I would have started crying and I would have been embarrassed. In the end I found the strength.”

Corporal Myers said he felt he had to take part in the fight to stop Hitler, but he had no desire to die. He was a gunner with a 90 mm anti-tank gun, an “infernal weapon”, as he put it. A devastating firefight in which a member of his tank's crew died as shrapnel tore through his steel helmet took a heavy emotional toll. The dead man was a Native American named Albert Haske.

“Recently his great-grandson saw me on TV and reached out to me,” Corporal Myers said. “He looks just like his uncle!”

Sometimes he examined German corpses and found crucifixes and concluded that, despite their faith, they could not say no to Hitler. His Christian faith is strong. He said this makes him walk straight and love others and that's how he got here. Hatred, according to him, is part of human nature, and the pursuit of power and money causes wars, but all this can be defeated with faith. “Hell, I don't even know you and I love you!” He said Corporal Myers.

He became meditative about the war. “You know, I've never killed anyone without having to, although I felt that way many times when we were stuck. It's hard for me to believe that today Putin is so ready to kill to take over other countries.”

With the return of war to Europe, the ghosts that haunted the continent feel closer, when twenty years ago they seemed to have been buried. The European Union was created to end war and has proven to be a magnet for peace. NATO was Europe's military guarantor. The two institutions have held the line, but the boundary between the world and war seems more blurred today than in the past.

It was hard to escape that feeling even in festive Normandy, and I found myself thinking of the last line of Siegfried Sassoon's “Suicide in the Trenches,” a poem about the First World War:

You smug-faced, wide-eyed fools
Who rejoice when the boy soldiers march,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter end up.

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