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Servicemembers mark 75th anniversary of often-overlooked WWII invasion of southern France

Steven Hill poses next to the grave of his uncle, Tech. 4 Zeb Murphy Banks, at Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. Banks was an Army tanker who was killed Aug. 28, 1944, when his tank hit a mine. Hill came to the cemetery to attend Friday's ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of Operation Dragoon.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By MICHAEL ABRAMS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 16, 2019

DRAGUIGNAN, France — A ceremony at Rhone American Cemetery on Friday remembered those who fought in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France 75 years ago.

Looking across the graves of more than 850 fallen troops, French and American dignitaries spoke of sacrifice and bravery in an operation that is often overlooked in the annals of World War II.

Simon Hankinson, the U.S. Consul General in Marseille, noted that when he was researching the battle he found just three books in English on it, but hundreds on the Normandy invasion.

Operation Dragoon was planned to happen simultaneously with the Normandy invasion, but a shortage of resources — mainly ships — led to the operation being canceled.

With Normandy a success and a need for more ports to bring men and equipment to the Continent, the plan was revived with the objective of capturing the ports of Toulon and Marseille, trapping the German army in France and linking up with Allied armies advancing in the north.

It was launched Aug. 15, 1944, and within a month, on Sept. 12, troops advancing north from the Cote d’Azur met up with troops from the Normandy invasion near Dijon. Most of France was free.

But the success came at a cost. In his speech, Rear Adm. Matthew Zirkle said that the freedom the U.S. and Europe enjoy today was “earned by the blood and sacrifice of those interred in these hallowed grounds, and we cannot and will not forget their sacrifice.”

The day before the ceremony, Allan Johnson, 95, walked through the cemetery, stopping at a few graves to honor members of his unit. One was that of Pvt. Henry Wikins, a Jewish soldier whose body, when recovered, showed signs of being tortured by the Nazis.

As a young private, Johnson, an engineer with the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, jumped into France in the early hours of Aug. 15. His unit was supposed to land in a triangle made up of the towns of Le Muy, La Motte and Les Arcs, but came down near Callian, nearly 15 miles off the mark.

“We didn’t know where we were,” Johnson said, recalling the day 75 years ago. “First people we saw were young girls who were leaning against the wall, giggling.”

Eventually his unit gathered and got going.

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Families and friends of others who fell during the operation attended the ceremony. Among them was Steven Hill, a college history teacher in Raleigh, N.C. He came to honor his uncle, Tech. 4 Zeb Murphy Banks, an Army tanker who was killed Aug. 28, 1944, when his tank hit a mine.

Hill had visited once before, 20 years ago with his father. When he saw the coverage of the D-Day anniversary in June he decided to come to the ceremony. “It’s the 75th anniversary, so I’ve got to do this,” he said before visiting his uncle’s grave.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jared Brannon, a saxophonist with the U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band from Naples, Italy, thought it was the most touching ceremony he has attended.

“To be surrounded by people who gave their lives was moving,” he said. “And being near the French Resistance fighters, who fought the oppression of the Nazis, was inspiring.”

Following the speeches there was a wreath-laying, the playing of taps, a rifle salute, a flyover of a Ramstein Air Base, Germany, C-130 Hercules aircraft and the playing of the national anthems before the U.S. Naval Forces Europe color guard retired the colors.

“It was an outstanding ceremony,” said Spc. John Cruz, a member of the firing detail from the U.S. Army’s 1st Inland Cargo Transfer Company in Kaiserslautern, Germany. “It was a great honor to be here.”

abrams.mike@stripes.com
Twitter: @stripes_photog

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On the 75th anniversary of Operation Dragoon, the World War II invasion of southern France, veteran Allan Johnson stands among the graves at Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan, France, and pays his respects to Pvt. Henry Wikins, a fellow member of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

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