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U.S. veterans return to Normandy to mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day, recall WWII moments

'I have never forgotten them and I know that their spirits are here,' 98-year-old Charles Shay said of his fallen comrades.

U.S. veterans return to Normandy to mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day, recall WWII moments
Cover Image Source: YouTube/TODAY

Dozens of U.S. military veterans traveled to France this month to mark the 78th anniversary of the historic D-Day operation. According to the Associated Press, nearly two dozen veterans—along with crowds of French and international visitors—gathered at the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer on Monday for a ceremony honoring those who fought during the invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. As the veterans, who are now all in their 90s, set foot on the sands that claimed the lives of many colleagues nearly eight decades ago, they were overcome by sadness over yet another war being waged in Europe: Russia's invasion of Ukraine.


"I have never forgotten them and I know that their spirits are here," 98-year-old Charles Shay, who took part in a sage-burning ceremony near the beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, said of his fallen comrades. The Penobscot Native American from Indian Island, Maine, was a 19-year-old U.S. Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Shay, who now lives in Normandy, said he was sad to see war in Europe once again. "Ukraine is a very sad situation. I feel sorry for the people there and I don't know why this war had to come, but I think the human beings like to, I think they like to fight. I don't know," he said.


"In 1944, I landed on these beaches and we thought we'd bring peace to the world. But it's not possible," Shay added. Also in attendance was 97-year-old Ray Wallace, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division whose plane caught fire after it was struck on D-Day. "It looked like the 4th of July going in there because all of the searchlights and aircraft and guns going off. Of course, we could hear the flack hitting the plane. When we started hearing that... we all got a little scared," Wallace told USA Today about what he witnessed.


Wallace recounted that he and his fellow crew members were forced to jump earlier than originally anticipated once the plane burst into flames. "And then whenever the guy dropped us out, we were away from where the rest of the group was," he explained. "That was scary." According to PEOPLE, nearly 160,000 troops from the United States, Canada and Britain participated in what was one of the largest military invasions in history in an effort to liberate France from the control of Nazi Germany after four years of occupation. More than 4400 Allied soldiers were killed amid the invasion.


This is the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that crowds have been permitted to gather at Omaha Beach. Although ceremonies were limited in 2020 and 2021, people returned to Normandy in droves this year to honor those who lost their lives on the beach while fighting for freedom. Jake Larson, better known as "Papa Jake" by his 475,000 followers on TikTok where he shares his stories about WWII, was among those present at the historic location to mark the occasion. Speaking to TODAY, Larson said that being back at Omaha Beach was an "eerie" feeling for him.


"God, what am I doing here? What the hell? I can't see anybody to shoot at," he asked himself when he landed on the beach, Larson recalled. "But I ran," he continued. "I weighed 120 lbs. at 5-foot-7 and I said, 'Thank god the Germans aren't good at shooting toothpicks!' Honestly, I was thinking that!" However, Larson doesn't consider himself a hero. Instead, he believes he is simply helping share the stories of the real heroes who gave their lives that day. "I'm here to tell you that heroes are buried over here," he said. "The message is, protect our freedom. Honor these heroes that have given their life at a young age. Honor these people, don't honor me."


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