Memories of D-Day, replayed on the Normandy Coast
Vierville-Sur-Mer, France • At Camp Dog Green, recreated just a few miles inland from where combat raged on and around the Normandy beaches in June 1944, soldiers in U.S. uniforms and nurses with the Red Cross insignia on their breast pockets mill among the drab green tents, tuning their tinny radios to the music of Glenn Miller. They appear to be just waiting for orders.
For these "troops," death is a remote idea: They are all re-enactors from France, Belgium, Holland and elsewhere who have a passion for recreating the environment that surrounded D-Day, complete with vintage cars and trucks. The women have swept their hair back into buns and wear the bright red lipstick favored in the '40s. For their off-duty hours, some have even brought period polka-dot dresses.
The goal, said Serge Balleux, the president of a Belgian association called Duty First, which staged another re-enactment camp on the Normandy coast, is to make the environment exactly like "what happened here 70 years ago."
That camp, Cecil Breeden, named for a medic who treated many soldiers during the invasion, is a reproduction of a makeshift base that U.S. soldiers set up as battle raged in the surrounding countryside. Balleux has spared no detail to make the camp look authentic. The soldier re-enactors stand in line to receive their pay and in their spare time play dice in their tents, which are restored from the era.
"I want to show the public how the GI lived here," Balleux said.
Seventy years after D-Day, the huge invasion has long since taken on the aura of myth. The heroism and sacrifice have become the stuff of history books, novels and movies, and they have now inspired the transformation of this part of Normandy into a sort of history theme park. It has become a touchstone for the leaders of the United States, Britain, France and the other Allies, who again gathered here Friday under sunny skies to invoke the heroism of the day.
Many villages on this small stretch of coast along the English Channel are participating in the commemoration of the Allied landing and eventual liberation of France from Nazi Germany. Just one of the celebrations, the annual D-Day Festival, which will be held in Arromanches, Isigny-sur-Mer and Grandcamp-Maisy among other villages, will last two weeks and will feature fireworks, swing music concerts and Liberation balls this year. In Sainte-Mère-Église, the celebrations include the re-enactment of a parachute drop.
Yet D-Day has not yet faded entirely into nostalgia and tourism. Seventy years on, the annual commemoration still draws veterans who stormed the beaches and fought their way inland amid chaos, fear and death. For them, the contrasts between what was and what has been reimagined can be jarring. What has been sanitized and mythologized for most of those who have come to celebrate what the Allied forces achieved that day is for the surviving soldiers who landed at Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno and Gold beaches still very real and very messy.
John Trippon, 92, of Sun City West, Arizona, who served as a technical sergeant with what he referred to as the "landing craft infantry," walked through Camp Dog Green, hardly seeming to notice the re-enactors. In his mind's eye, he was once again a confused young soldier trying to make it to shore.
"What happened should have never happened to anybody," Trippon said.
"I came in the second wave," he said. His landing craft had to nose its way through the floating bodies of soldiers who had not made it to the beach.
The German fire was so relentless that rather than approach the shore, the boats dropped his unit in the sea, about 350 feet from land.
"And so we went down in the water," he said. "It kept going over my head because the Americans had been bombing the coast line here for about six weeks prior to the invasion and there were a lot of craters under the water, and the one I went into was way over my head. And I had a Browning automatic rifle across my shoulders and bandoleers of ammo, hand grenades and a gas mask, and I had to get rid of all that otherwise I would be drowned.
"When I got on the shore, all I had left was my helmet and my gas mask, no gun.
"I picked up a gun off the beach because there were so many guys that had been killed so the guns were lying on the beach. And a friend of mine who was from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, hollered to me to come over and have shelter from the machine guns," he said, tears in his eyes.
"Of the 560 of us who landed that day, only 240 of us were alive," at the end of it, he said.
"Then, when we went home, there was only 120 of us, and now there are only three," he said, tears covering his face.
"That's my story."