When D-Day veterans tread Normandy beaches and other World War II sites, they express a mixture of joy and sadness.
Joy to see the gratitude and benevolence of the French towards those who landed on June 6, 1944; sadness thinking of their fallen comrades and another battle currently being waged in Europe: the war in Ukraine.
Seventy-eight years later, as a bright sun rose over the wide stretch of sand on Omaha Beach on Monday, American D-Day veteran Charles Shay expressed his thoughts for his fallen comrades that day.
“I have never forgotten them and I know their spirits are here,” he told The Associated Press.
The 98-year-old Penobscot Native American from Indian Island, Maine took part in a sage burning ceremony near the beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.
Mr Shay, who now lives in Normandy, was a 19-year-old US Army doctor when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
This year, Mr. Shay entrusted the task of remembrance to another Native American, from the Crow tribe, Julia Kelly, a veteran of the Gulf War, who performed the sage ritual.
“Never forget, never forget,” she said.
“Right now, at any time, war is not good.”
Mr. Shay’s message to younger generations would be to “always be vigilant”.
“Of course I have to say they should protect their freedom that they have now,” he said.
For the past two years, D-Day ceremonies have been kept to a minimum amid Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.
This year, throngs of French and international visitors – including veterans over 90 – are back in Normandy to pay their respects to the nearly 160,000 British, American, Canadian and other soldiers who landed there to bring freedom. .
Several thousand people were expected at a ceremony later at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer.
Among the dozens of American veterans expected was Ray Wallace, 97, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
On D-Day, his plane is hit and catches fire, forcing him to jump ahead of schedule.
He landed 20 miles from the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first French village to be liberated from Nazi occupation.
“We were all a little scared at that time. And then every time the guy let us down, we were far from where the rest of the group was. It was scary,” Wallace told The Associated Press.
Less than a month later, he was taken prisoner by the Germans.
He was finally released after 10 months and returned to the United States.
Still, Mr. Wallace thinks he was lucky.
“I remember the good friends I lost there. So it’s kind of emotional,” he said, with sadness in his voice.
“I guess you can say I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I haven’t done that much.”
He was asked the secret of his longevity.
“Calvados!” he joked, referring to the local Normandy liquor.
On D-Day, Allied troops landed on the beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats.
On that day alone, 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives, including 2,501 Americans.
Over 5,000 were injured.
On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.
Mr. Wallace, who uses a wheelchair, was one of the twenty veterans of the Second World War who opened the parade of military vehicles on Saturday in Sainte-Mère-Eglise to the applause of thousands of people, in an atmosphere joyful.
He made no secret of his delight, happily waving to the crowd as parents told their children about the exploits of World War II heroes.
Many history buffs, dressed in military and civilian clothes of the time, also came to stage a re-enactment of the events.
In Colleville-sur-Mer on Monday, US Air Force planes are to fly over the American cemetery during the commemoration ceremony, in the presence of Army General Mark Milley, Joint Chief of Staff.
The place houses the graves of 9,386 people who died in battle on D-Day and in the operations that followed.
For Dale Thompson, 82, visiting the site over the weekend was a first.
Mr Thompson, who came from Florida with his wife, served in the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the early 1960s.
He was in the United States and saw no fights.
Walking among the thousands of marble headstones, Mr Thompson wondered how he would have reacted if he had landed on D-Day.
“I try to put myself in their shoes,” he said.
“Could I be as heroic as these people?