D-Day celebrated amid coronavirus pandemic
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, France, 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 United States, Britain and other allied countries from making the trip to France. Only a few officials were allowed 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 recalls the "many good friends" he lost on the battlefield.
Under a bright sun, the 96-year-old Penobscot Native American from Indian Island, Maine, stood steadily while the hymns of the Allied countries were played on 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 was expected to be the only veteran at yesterday's anniversary 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 US, British, Canadian and allied troops in storming Normandy's code-named beaches.
While France is planning to open up to vaccinated visitors starting this week, that comes too late for the D-Day anniversary.
For the second year in a row, most public commemoration events have been canceled. A few solemn ceremonies have been maintained, with dignitaries and a few guests only.
Local residents, however, are coming in greater numbers than last year, as France started lifting its internal virus restrictions last month.
Some French and a few other World War II history enthusiasts from neighboring 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. 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 a field 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.
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.
Still, that single day cost the lives of 4,414 Allied troops. More than 5,000 were injured. On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.