80th anniversary of D-Day: This year will likely be the last big D-Day anniversary with living veterans, so organizers are going all out

Editor’s note: As the 80th anniversary of D-Day approaches, the global fight for democracy continues. CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper He speaks with World War II veterans and military generals about the global erosion of democratic institutions. “D-Day: Why We Still Fight for Democracy” airs Sunday, June 2 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.

Caen, France

At 99 years old, Jack Foy is considered the youngest of his group of friends who fought in World War II.

But their advanced age will not prevent them from making the transatlantic journey to honor their fallen comrades on the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

On June 6, Foy – a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge – and his fellow American veterans will join dignitaries and heads of state from around the world to commemorate the nearly 160,000 Allied troops who, eight decades ago, led the largest maritime invasion. in the history of humanity.

Foy told CNN that he has traveled to several memorials in France since 2014. The emotional resonance of each trip grows stronger with each year, he said, because these veterans know that each trip could be the last.

“We realize we are coming to the end of our time,” Foy said.

They are not alone.

While major commemorations are held every five years, organizers and government officials admit that this year’s event could be the last to involve living veterans, whose stories of the horrors of war have become particularly poignant given that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused large-scale terrain. war returns to Europe for the first time since 1945.

“We are acutely aware that for these centenarians, this may be the last chance to return to the beaches where they landed, where they fought and where their brothers in arms fell,” said Gen. Michel Delion, CEO of the French government agency in charge of French commemoration efforts, Mission Libération.

1st lieutenant. Katherine Sibille

World War II veteran Jack Foy shakes hands with then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, on the D-Day anniversary last year.

The various countries organizing the event are now planning what is expected to be the largest D-Day commemoration in history – both in terms of size and, crucially for elderly veterans, logistics.

About 150 U.S. veterans are expected to go to Normandy — about two dozen of whom actually fought on D-Day — said Charles Djou, secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the independent agency responsible for managing military cemeteries and monuments. Americans. overseas. The youngest is 96 years old.

Fifteen Canadian veterans, including three or four who fought on D-Day, are traveling with the Canadian delegation, according to John Desrosiers, director of international operations for Veterans Affairs Canada. Desrosiers said the youngest traveling with the group was 98 years old and the oldest was 104 years old.

The British Ministry of Defense said it was expecting more than 40 World War II veterans at the various events in Normandy.

Christophe Furlong/Getty Images

American D-Day veterans attend an event at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial as part of celebrations for the 79th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2023.

These veterans will be joined by approximately 25 heads of state and government, including US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not receive an invitation due to the war in Ukraine, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky plans to attend, according to a French presidential source.

With so many heads of state in town, the security measures in place are intense. A massive contingent of 12,000 security agents will be deployed on June 6, the French Interior Ministry said.

The heavy travel restrictions put in place by French authorities will also cut off the Normandy coastline and the usually sleepy towns that do so from the rest of the country.

Yet on June 6, these elderly men typically crisscross the region on a full-day itinerary, including national ceremonies held at American, British, and Canadian cemeteries; the major international commemoration organized by France; And then, if they have the energy, more local events.

Most veterans also travel with a whole phalanx of medical personnel. The charity that organized Foy’s trip, the US-based Best Defense Foundation, will bring three doctors and 10 nurses to accompany the 50 veterans they are flying over from the US. Each veteran will travel with a personal caregiver – usually a family member or friend.

Officials say they go to incredible lengths to treat veterans like royalty – because they are feted by actual royals. King Charles III will be there on June 6 – his first trip abroad since being diagnosed with cancer – alongside Queen Camilla and Prince William, Buckingham Palace said. Representatives of the royal families of Belgium, Monaco, the Netherlands and Norway are also expected.

The Delion team organized rehearsals and timed wheelchair races for the French-led international ceremony. They are also considering bringing veterans in at the same time as heads of state and other dignitaries to reduce their wait time.

U.S. and Canadian organizers told CNN they would place veterans last at their respective national ceremonies to ensure their comfort. The general public at a US event, for example, may have to be seated about an hour in advance due to security measures.

“We care for the veterans who served and made the enormous sacrifices they made during World War II,” Djou said.

Gareth Fuller/PA

British D-Day veteran Tom Schaffer (left) and his companion John Pinkerton study the names on the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer in France ahead of the 79th anniversary of the landings in June 2023. Schaffer died in March 2024 , at the age of 97.

After being postponed for 24 hours due to bad weather, D-Day began shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, when paratroopers traveled to German-occupied France to prepare the way for the impending invasion. Allied planes and warships began their bombardments around 6:30 a.m., and troops hit the beaches soon after. They landed on a 50-mile-long stretch of coastline organized into five beaches named Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah. The Americans were responsible for Omaha and Utah. The British led the assault on Gold and Sword, while the Canadians captured Juno.

Even though 4,414 Allied soldiers died that day and it would take more than a month to achieve one of the main objectives of D-Day – liberating the strategically important city of Caen – the landing was considered a success . The Allied troops had succeeded in landing in France; it was the beginning of the end for Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Archives Underwood/Getty Images

American troops disembarked from Omaha Beach on June 18, 1944.

The drama of the event has, for decades, captured the imagination of the American public, both because of the scale of the invasion and the fact that it was a “digestible” turning point in war, according to Ben Brands, a military historian at the University of Washington. the ABMC.

“World War II, especially in Europe, becomes a continuous battle from the moment troops land on the beaches on D-Day until Germany finally surrenders. The human mind has to break this down into understandable stories, and D-Day is a really powerful, understated event that is so crucial to everything that comes next,” Brands said. “There are so many powerful stories that come out of D-Day.”

Christophe Furlong/Getty Images

U.S. service members place American and French flags next to the graves of fallen soldiers at the Normandy American Cemetery June 5, 2023 in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Over time, veterans have played a crucial role in passing on the stories of D-Day. Their gripping and visceral testimonies are better history teachers than any textbook.

But only a fraction of the soldiers who survived D-Day are still alive.

Of the 16.4 million Americans who served in the military during World War II, fewer than 100,000 are expected to be alive by the end of the year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs . In Canada, as of March 31, 2023, there were only 9,297 living Canadian veterans who served in either the Second World War or the Korean War, according to the most recent statistics available from Veterans Affairs Canada . Britain’s Ministry of Defense said it did not keep numbers of veterans available.

It is clear what is the average age of a World War II the veteran is. Given that as of June 2020, the median age of a U.S. World War II veteran was 93, according to U.S. Census figures from the time, most surviving Allied Force veterans are likely now at minus the late 90s. By the 85th anniversary, in 2029, the number of people still alive will almost certainly be in triple digits.

“People realize that this generation is passing and that it is passing quickly now, and that it is important to keep their stories alive, to keep the memory of those who died and buried in Normandy, but also of those who fought and survived because they can’t do it. I won’t be with us much longer to tell these stories,” Brands said.

“The 80th will be a very powerful event.”

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