Looking out of the window of the chartered bus, Curtis Young visualized what might have taken place beyond the thick hedgerows after the troops landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The full weight of it would hit him later, at the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where 9,387 American war-dead are buried.
“I see soldiers, running, scared,” Young said, surveying the landscape through his historian’s eyes as a motorcycle police escort led the way for the last portion of the trip.
Our destination was the cemetery and Saturday’s commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. “They had no idea where they were in this vast countryside.”
A seat on the packed bus, organized by Democrats Abroad France, was itself the culmination of a journey that began with a security-laden process for receiving a mandatory invitation from the U.S. Embassy in Paris. A no-nonsense e-mail about the ride encouraged passengers to pack sandwiches, dried fruit, and medication and warned “there will be no stops to supermarkets,” and “there will be no stops at a pharmacy.”
Young discussed how he might have reacted if confronted with the same staggering odds as those young men had been. He said he probably would have been cowering in a corner, given his fear and loathing of guns. “That’s why I live in Europe, I’m afraid of guns.”
“But these kids, they did it,” he said. “They did something that for me is unimaginable.”
The Paris resident grew up in Chicago, where a teacher had deemed him “educationally incorrigible,” stunting his academic development for years to come. After falling in love with France on a chance visit, he went back to college in 1998, at age 50, to learn French and earn a bachelor’s degree. He has also completed a Master’s degree and is working on a PhD, with a focus on European history.
Once inside the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, Young looked out at sea, sighed heavily and said he couldn’t get over the idea of the thousands of ships that must have been coming toward the shore or the thousands of lives that ended here.
“The water must have been red,” he said. “You would think that all of us would have learned the insanity of war, the fruitlessness of war.”
Leaders from the Allied countries attending the somber D-Day commemoration touched on themes of diplomacy, cooperation and defying the odds in their remarks, seemingly echoing Young’s sentiments. They warmly praised the veterans at the event, in which their dwindling numbers was acknowledged.
“Perhaps more than any other reason, you, the veterans of that landing, you’re why we still remember what happened on D-Day; you’re why we keep coming back,” President Barack Obama said.
Obama was joined on stage by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, politically embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who accidentally referred to “Obama Beach” in his remarks before correcting himself) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Prince Charles also attended but did not make a speech.
Other high-profile attendees included Tom Hanks, Bob Dole, French leaders and high level members of Obama’s team.
Marion Fleury, 14 and Laurence Vircoulon, 15, who traveled from southwest France for the event, called the experience “once in a lifetime” and “exceptional.”
“It’s an honor and we owe them everything,” said Vircoulon, whose class has been corresponding with veterans, according to their teacher. A very emotional Christelle Zuccolotto, 38, said she was attending the event with her students, and with the help of a grant from a U.S. consulate, not only to impart history’s relevance to them but also to let the veterans know “that they are remembered not only in Normandy.”
The clouds that had been threatening all afternoon finally gave way after the ceremony and the skies opened up. A washed out picnic didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of fatigued passengers who were now starting to come down from the high of a day that for many began at 4am.
On the ride back home, the speeches were dissected and analyzed. Who gave the better speech Sarkozy or Obama? What long lasting impact would the speeches have? Which outlets were reporting on Brown’s “Obama Beach” slip of tongue? iPhones were ready for the online search.
Young shared another highlight of his day, a chance encounter with Michelle Obama and the photograph to prove it.