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D-Day is personal for many observing the 75th anniversary

We arrived here yesterday after a long drive from Paris. The look and feel of the terrain of Normandy reminds me of the Skagit Valley, especially around Mount Vernon, LaConner and Anacortes.

We’re staying in a resort town just east of where the landings took place 75 years ago. It was pretty quiet when we pulled in Tuesday night, and I wasn’t sure if we’d see anybody else who was obviously here for the anniversary.

So I was heartened when, within moments of unloading the car and then stepping back out of our rental, a vintage American jeep raced by us on the narrow street. Then, a few minutes later, on the windy beach, we bumped into three retired US military vets in their 50s, who had just arrived after a 10-hour drive from Frankfurt, Germany.

Lance Beyer, who’s originally from New Orleans, told me why he and his friends Paul Ziegler and Larry Collins made the trip to Normandy this year.

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“It’s a brotherhood. We’re among other vets,” Beyer said. “I’ve had older family members that came to World War II and fought. They’re long gone, but this is a tribute to them and, it’s something we’ve all been wanting to do for years, we decided to come out for the 75th and it’s just respect to old soldiers, and it’s not only just the American soldiers — it’s anybody that fought for their countries and what they believed in at that time. For me, this is like the mecca of World War II.”

It was getting late, but we got in the car and headed for “Sword Beach,” which is the easternmost of the formal D-Day landing areas, and is in town of Hermanville.

On the way there, we had to cross the Orne Canal at Benouville, where we were happy to find a celebration underway — and this was not a somber affair.

Pipers and marching bands were playing, and they were at least a few hundred people from all over Western Europe jamming the narrow streets, many with pints of beer in hand. Spirits were high, but the emotions of it all felt pretty raw, especially as the crowd clapped and sang along with old British military songs.

This crossing over the Orne Canal has been known for decades as “Pegasus Bridge,” in honor of the symbol of the Royal Air Force. It’s the site of the first official Allied action on D-Day, and a monument here calls it the first French soil to be liberated by Allied troops.

They were British troops that landed at Benouville — they came by air in plywood “Horsa” gliders, and landed just after midnight on June 6, 1944.

Those troops captured Pegasus Bridge and one other – now named “Horsa Bridge” in honor of the glider manufacturer –  from the Germans. These were vitally important for the Allies to control for defensive and offensive purposes.

We were walking across Pegasus Bridge, and ran into 93-year old Albert Gibbs from the UK. He’s a D-Day veteran, having arrived on June 10, 1944 with a supply company for the 79th Armoured Division of the British Army.

Like so many vets I’ve talked to, he didn’t want to talk about himself. But he did have a D-Day story that he wanted to make sure was told as far and wide as possible.

On the road from Bayeux to La Seulles, there’s a farm. The farm was being used as a dressing station, and those the chaps that never made it were buried on the lawn inside.  When the hostilities left here, the War Graves Commission went ‘round collecting the lads, ‘cause there were a lot of Airborne hanging about.

And they come to this farm, and they started to work on taking the bodies out. And the farmer came out and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ and they said, ‘We’re taking them to the main Bayeux cemetery. He said, ‘You’re not.’ He went back indoors. He came back with a double-barrel gun and he said, ‘Them fellas died for us, and the only thing we can do is look after their [bodies].’ And after a bit of consultation, they left it there, and if you go there between Bayeux and Tilly La Seulles, it’s on the left hand side and it’s called ‘Jerusalem.’

While we were speaking with Mr. Gibbs, he received word from a grandson standing nearby (with cellphone in hand) that his youngest granddaughter had given birth back in the UK. He took the news perfectly in stride, cracking an unprintable joke.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the party at Pegasus Bridge, but we still wanted to see Sword Beach. After a short drive, we arrived in Hermanville a bit before sunset.

There’s a simple monument there, and we met a man from Bristol, England named Richard Cottrel. His late father helped get the monument installed. David Cottrel was in the Royal Navy just offshore in the destroyer HMS Swift on D-Day, and father and son came back almost every year for the anniversary.

David Cottrel died two years ago at age 93. This year when he arrived at Sword Beach, Richard was shocked to find a banner picturing his father. It was attached to a lamppost right next to the monument that David Cottrel helped create.

“We’ve just come today, and we walked down,” Richard Cottrel said, describing how he and a group of family members found the special banner. “We’ve seen them, all this things, all these people being commemorated [on other banners attached to lampposts]. And we come here, and Harley, that’s my nephew, he says, ‘There’s granddad!”

I asked Richard Cottrel why D-Day is important to remember, and he told me what happened when he and his dad were here for the 60th anniversary in 2004.

We were here and we were walking up after the memorial here and we had a lot of veterans with us. And there was a woman walking past us, and the French had given a national holiday, and there was people all up and down the beaches. And the woman said, ‘Disgusting. Look at them on the beaches. Don’t they know what day it is today? They should have respect.’ And one of the veterans went up and said, ‘That’s what we fought for. Freedom. That’s freedom there.’ And we all cried. Everyone cried ‘cause it was so poignant.

Commemorations will continue throughout the day Wednesday and Thursday, where tens of thousands of people are expected to take part.

After years of reading about D-Day and several months of more recent research for this trip, it strikes me that the three years of preparation and the scale of the Allied invasion of Normandy reminds me of the decade of work in terms of planning, complexity and overall logistics that NASA undertook to put Apollo XI on the moon – but only if the moon had been defended by thousands of enemy soldiers with machine guns, snipers and artillery.

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