One of the principal U.S. commemorations of the 65th anniversary of the World War II landings in France will take place June 6-7 at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Among those taking part will be several hundred veterans of the D-Day landings and other World War II battles.
The success of the Allied landings on Normandy's beaches 65 years ago spelled the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. But, while many people today know of D-Day from history books or movies, fewer and fewer people remain who were alive when it happened and fewer still who witnessed the dramatic event.
National World War II Museum Vice President Sam Wegner says the 65th anniversary of D-Day provides an opportunity to honor those who fought in the war while they are still around. "There were 16 million Americans who served in uniform in World War II and that number is down to a little over II million Americans now. The U.S. World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 900 a day," he said.
Wegner says the June 6 events planned at the museum include a ceremony focused on the surviving veterans and their families. "On Saturday afternoon we are going to be doing a ceremony called 'A Gathering of the Greatest Generation, a Roll Call of the American Fighting Man of World War II.' We have invited down World War II veterans and their families and, in some instances, we will have the families of the veterans, since the veteran has since passed on," he said.
One of the veterans of the D-Day operation who is on hand for this weekend's events at the museum is 88-year-old Tom Blakey, a native of Houston, who was 22-years old when he parachuted into northern France with the 82nd Airborne Division on June 6, 1944.
Speaking to VOA by phone, he told of the days of hard fighting he and his fellow soldiers endured in order to take a vital bridge and hold it. When he thinks of the men who fought and died there, he thinks in particular of a fellow named Bob Richey from San Francisco.
"Bob was a wonderful guy. We spent a lot of time together, there were three of us who did a lot of things together. He was killed at Bastogne. I understand from some people who were there that there were six Americans at this one area and there was a pile of Germans, dead. So, evidently, they did their job in good shape before they were taken in," he said.
Blakey says there were many times in combat when he wondered why he was there and questioned the point of all the bloodshed and suffering. He says that attitude disappeared when he helped liberate a concentration camp and saw the atrocities that had been committed by the Nazis. But Blakey says he feels uncomfortable when people call him a hero.
"I do not feel that I did anything unusual or out of the ordinary. We needed to do something and we did it. It is just that simple. There were 400,000 men killed in World War II and they are your heroes. I am just one of the lucky guys who got home," he said.
Blakey and a few hundred other veterans of World War II will take part in the II-day commemoration of the D-Day landings at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans this weekend.
Since it was founded as the D-Day Museum nine years ago, the site near downtown New Orleans has received over two million visitors, including many veterans of the war and their family members.
The museum houses weapons and artifacts from the war as well as thousands of stories from veterans kept in its oral history archives. In 2003, the US Congress designated the non-profit institution as the National World War II Museum and it has now expanded to include all aspects of the war, in Europe, the Pacific and at home.