‘You saved the world,’ Austin tells surviving WWII vets at D-Day commemoration
Stars and Stripes June 6, 2023
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — More than 50 veterans from World War II braved the chilly, windy air along the northern French coastline to salute their fallen comrades on Tuesday, the 79th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
“This was wonderful,” said former Army Air Corps pilot Daniel Keel, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. “It’s a great honor to be here.”
Keel, 100, is one of just dozens of World War II veterans who are still living. Several surviving veterans attend the anniversary of the invasion at the Normandy American Cemetery in northern France each June. But as time passes, fewer show up. This year, there were about 55 veterans at the ceremony.
“There aren’t many of us left,” said Charles Shay, who was a 20-year-old infantryman and medic when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. He is 98. “I hope to be here again next year.”
Shay is a Native American and a Penobscot tribal elder from Maine. He was the state’s first Native American to be awarded the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit, for his actions on D-Day. He later served in the Korean War.
Betty Huffman-Rosevear also attended the ceremony Tuesday. She was a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps during the war. Having just celebrated her 102nd birthday on Saturday, she said it was “an honor” to be at the ceremony nearly eight decades after one of World War II’s most legendary days.
Exactly one year before D-Day, on June 6, 1943, Huffman-Rosevear married Army 2nd Lt. Billy Huffman, who died in Europe several months later. She was working with soldiers with brain injuries at a hospital in California when his plane was shot down over Denmark and he was killed in early 1944.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” Huffman-Rosevear said Tuesday after the emotional ceremony ended. “How great.”
During the ceremony, which included speeches from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the group of veterans listened and watched from a plastic tent to shield them from the morning chill beneath gray, overcast skies.
Austin arrived in France to attend the ceremony after spending several days on a trip to Asia. When he spoke to the veterans sitting off to his right, Austin — a former four-star Army general who served for 41 years and led U.S. Central Command — was unequivocal in his gratitude.
“The eyes of the world are still upon the heroes of D-Day,” Austin said. “To the veterans of World War II: We salute you. You saved the world.”
“It is you and your generation who have given us the freedoms that we enjoy,” Milley told the veterans. “Today, we honor more than 150,000 Allied soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy 79 years ago. It’s a day of profound significance in the history of the world.”
“It was a day that began the liberation of France from Nazi tyranny,” he added. “Each of us, the living, has a duty. We have a duty to carry forward this experiment in democracy.”
Tyranny and oppression were themes that Austin spoke about in his speech too.
“In our unsettled times, we again hear some sneer that tyranny is the future, that people long for strongman rule, that the unity of free people will shatter, and that the hour of democracy has passed,” he said. “They are wrong. … We will not let the torch of freedom go out.”
Normandy American Cemetery was the first American-administered cemetery to be established on European soil during World War II. Almost 9,400 people — mostly members of the military who died during Operation Overlord in the summer of 1944 — are buried there.
Operation Overlord was the allied effort to drive German forces out of occupied parts of Western Europe. It began with D-Day on June 6 and lasted until the end of August. During that time, more than 20,000 Americans were killed in the battle and thousands of British, Canadian and other Allied troops also died.
It’s expected the D-Day ceremony will be more prominent next year for the 80th anniversary. Many of the veterans said they want to come back and some of the younger Americans who were at the cemetery Tuesday voiced enthusiasm to attend such a historic event.
“We finally decided to come this year,” said Perry Jones, a New Yorker who traveled to France with his wife to witness the remembrance ceremony. “Those who fought with the [World War II] generation deserve our greatest thanks and our ultimate respect.”
“We have always wanted to see something like this for a long time, and this year we just decided to do it,” said Mary Anne Willis of Florida, who brought her two young granddaughters to Normandy. “What an incredibly moving experience to see all the veterans up there and the planes flying over. … We may come again next year for the 80th anniversary.”
Before Tuesday’s ceremony started, the U.S. and French anthems were played and a group of military aircraft performed a flyover above the cemetery, leaving contrails of red, white and blue — the national colors of France and the United States. The planes’ wings were also painted in red-white-blue livery.
“Wow that was so cool!” a young American girl, wearing the stars and stripes draped around her shoulders, said to her father. “Look at all those colors!”
“You’re going to remember this day forever,” her father replied.