Just as thousands of American veterans gathered Memorial Day weekend in Washington for the dedication of the new World War II Memorial, veterans and leaders from around the world are gathering at the site of one of that war's most decisive battles, known as "D-Day." The Allied forces invaded the Normandy Coast on June 6, 1944. For the 60th anniversary, President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin will travel to Normandy to represent the three nations who led the invasion. They'll be joined by French President Jacques Chirac and about a dozen other world leaders, including, for the first time ever, Germany's Chancellor. Some Allied veterans are protesting the participation of Gerhard Schroeder in the D-Day ceremonies, saying it is not the place to commemorate reconciliation with Germany.
This year's June 6 anniversary reunion is being dubbed "The Last Hurrah" for the D-Day veterans, as fewer and fewer of them are able to visit villages, beaches and cemeteries in Normandy. As Keming Kuo reports, however, more and more Americans who are too young to remember the war, are visiting those sites.
More than 54,000 Americans visited those sites in the first three months of the year... many of them, children and grandchildren of the veterans who fought there.
"These [veterans] are coming back not just with their wives, by themselves or with a buddy," said Gene Dellinger, superintendent of the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. "They're coming with their families their children and grandchildren. So instead of getting one or two people, we're getting six or eight. That means we'll have more people [this year] than we had during the 50th [anniversary] I feel."
At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer the graves of more than 9,000 soldiers are laid out in precisely aligned rows, marked with white crosses or Stars of David. The cemetery is located on a bluff just above Omaha Beach, where American soldiers suffered their most horrific losses - as they came ashore from rough seas to face heavy German gunfire. With the increasing number of grandchildren of D-Day veterans coming to the cemetery, Mr. Dellinger says he's noticed a new dialogue taking shape between generations.
"When I came here on my first assignment in January, 1976, the real veteran would not talk; you'd understand why," he said. "When I came back in 1999, I found the veterans were starting to talk but only when their grandchildren were around. So the children were hearing it for the first time, the stories, the real stories."
Hearing those stories back home can inspire families to visit Normandy, even when a father or grandfather can't make the trip.
"This is my sister, and her son has always wanted to come see the D-Day beaches," said U.S. Navy sailor Paul Lester. "Our father was here during the Normandy landings. That was the main attraction for us to come and look at it."
Paul Lester and his sister Marci Bonnet came to Normandy without their dad. They spoke to VOA at a restaurant near the Arromanches Museum, 16 kilometers east of Colleville-sur-Mer.
"He hasn't come back since 60 years ago. He hasn't had much of a desire to come back. But we wanted to see it, so we came," Mr. Lester said. "I was just amazed; it's a big learning thing for me," said Ms. Bonnet. "This wasn't anything of what I expected or that I would ever see in my life. I've learned so much. I think the thing that impressed me the most, and I never gave it any thought, was everything that went into the landing: how many years it took them to build all this stuff and get it here and get it set up. And even bigger than that: how do you manage to bring everyone over here and keep them with food ? how do you get everything from wherever it is to everybody who needs it. It's huge."
Marci Bonnet and her brother, Paul Lester, say their father has only recently begun to talk with them about D-Day.
"He never really talked about it when we were kids. But the older he gets, the more he shares with us," said Ms. Bonnet. "He talks about it more with my son and probably more with you [Paul] than with me."
"A little bit," Mr. Lester said. "I remember one: I guess he came on 'D-Day plus three' as a replacement. I guess because of the losses, they kind of decided which units needed more people. They just lined them up and counted down 20 guys and said, 'You're going to this unit. You're going to that unit.' "While they were marching up to meet their companies, he said there was a German plane coming in. He could see it was lining up to strafe the column of guys. My dad was thinking, 'How do I get out of the way of this thing? Trying to be intelligent about it.' When he looked around, everyone else had already jumped off the road and were laying down. He was the only one left standing up. He did get down and the plane didn't get anybody. It was just funny; my dad trying to outthink the German fighter plane."
Paul Lester says his father's D-Day memories are still so vivid after 60 years, he has been reluctant to see recent war films and TV series such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.
"I don't think he's even interested in watching those movies," he said. "I just sent him that Band of Brothers maybe two or three months ago. It sounded like something he'd be interested in because he spends more time now with his buddies. They're all from World War II and tell their stories. He's more interested now in what happened to everyone else during the war. He thought he'd like to see that, but I don't think he's seen them so far."
But other Americans who are too young to remember D-Day have been introduced to the historic invasion through films like The Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.
"My 17-year-old daughter has seen the movie [Saving Private Ryan] over 40 times; we've watched Band of Brothers, all 11 episodes, at least six or seven times. She absolutely knows about Normandy and Omaha and Utah beaches," said Buzz Green of Thousand Oaks, California, who brought his daughter and wife to northern France. We caught up with him at the Caen Memorial and Museum for Peace, about 25 kilometers southeast of Arromanches.
"We happen to be living now with some French friends," he said. "The reason why we're here in Caen is because they knew about the memorial in Caen that I wasn't aware of. We're going to [visit] Omaha Beach tomorrow. I've been looking forward to that ? I'm getting sentimental now just thinking about it, what I'm about to see."
This weekend, as many as one million people are expected to attend ceremonies in France to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Thousands of French sailors, pilots, soldiers and police will patrol the beaches, waters and skies of Normandy to protect against a possible terrorist attack. It will be the biggest military mobilization on the beaches of Normandy since 132,500 Allied troops stormed ashore in 1944.